MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts – Part 16

18 Jan


Continued from Part 15

Western Women in leftist and national movements (2)

The intertwining lives of what was called as the Left Quartet – M N Roy, Evelyn Trent, Virendranath Chattopadyaya and Agnes Smedley are rather very engaging. The lives of men and the lives of the women ran on almost parallel lines.

Roy and Chattopadyaya the best known pioneers of Indian communism were both born in 1880s to Bengali Brahmin middle class families. Both were exposed as school boys to the dynamic nationalism of Vivekananda, Nivedita and Aurobindo. They both were influenced by militant politics of Bengal and the early armed resistance. They were ardent nationalists, participated in the extreme–wing of the nationalist struggle and were involved with Germans in trying to promote revolutionary activities in India during the First World War. By the early 1920, they were operating on the same terrain and came into bitter conflict over which one was to be accepted as the leader of the Indian Communist party.


There are also interesting parallel developments in the stories of two American women.

Both Evelyn Trent and Agnes Smedley were born in 1892 in the USA and were radicalized by labour, feminist and anti-imperial struggle of that period. Both were politically active in California during 1915-1916 and met briefly in New York before their dramatic confrontation in Moscow in 1921 as consorts of two Indian revolutionaries who were vying for the attention of Lenin and the Communist International.

They both had stressful life, in addition to the strain of living with Indian revolutionaries who were lionized because of their active association with Communist movement; but, were forced to live as fugitives on the run to avoid arrest or deportation by American and European Governments.

The dedication of these two women to the cause of Indian Independence was remarkable. Yet, neither visited India.

But around 1925, both the sets of couples separated. The women never again got directly involved with Indian nationalism or Indian communist movement.

Agnes Smedley became an internationally known writer because of her subsequent links to Communist movement in China.

And Evelyn went into oblivion from mid-1920s and distanced herself from India, the Indian communist movement and the Indian national movement.


Although each pair lived and worked separately, they all converged in Moscow in 1920 during the Second World Congress of the Communist International.

It was a turbulent time in India also, when events in India were gathering momentum, when Lala Lajpat Rai formed (1920) the All India Trade Union Congress; and when Gandhi’s first large Civil Disobedience campaign was attracting masses in unbelievably huge numbers.

By about the same time, civil disobedience was marred by a stray incident of violence. That led Gandhi to call off the massive protests, just at the point it could have grown into a full scale revolution. The events happening in India overshadowed the irksome relations between Roy and Chattopadyaya.


The period of 1921-22 was significant in the Communist movement and in the Indian national movement as well.  M N Roy and Virendranath Chattopadyaya met in Moscow in 1921, as delegates to the second Congress of the Communist International.

Interestingly, at Moscow, there were involved discussions both among the Bolsheviks and the Indian groups over the merits and de-merits of non-violence over revolutionary uprising. It was also a period when Marxism was discussed in India along with the tactics of Gandhi and Lenin. And, that led to heated discussions and controversies

When the Roy and Virendranath Chattopadyaya met in Moscow in 1921, their main political differences began to sprout from their conflicting assessments of the Indian political scene. Chattopadyaya was in favour of a united front of all anti-imperial forces, whether Communist or not, to overthrow the British Rule.

Roy however was reluctant to lose the identity by joining with other Indian nationalists. He was concerned with building a viable Indian Communist Party to lead the anti-imperialist movement and to lend a Socialist direction to the Free India.

The groups aligned to Roy and to Chattopadyaya fought tooth and nail over the issue. They parted bitterly.

At Moscow, the idea advocated by Roy won the approval; and the Communist International permitted Roy and Evelyn for launching the Communist Party of India from Tashkent in 1921.


Viren (3)

Virendranath Chattopadyaya (1880-1941) , born in a Bengali family settled in  Hyderabad (Deccan) , was the eldest son (the second of eight children) of Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya (Chatterjee), a scientist-philosopher and educationist,  who was an ex-principal and professor of science at the Nizam College, Hyderabad, and his wife Barada Sundari Devi, a poetess and singer.

Their children Sarojini Naidu and Harindranath Chattopadhyay became well-known poets and eminent parliamentarians. Their daughter Mrinalini became a Nationalist activist and introduced Virendranath to many of her circle in Calcutta.

Virendranath went to Britain in 1901 for studies, but got involved with extreme Indian nationalists in London and with Irish revolutionaries. Fearing arrest, he escaped to France in 1910, where he worked with French Socialists and the Indian revolutionary Madam Bhikaji Cama. At the outbreak of the War he left for Germany.

viren chatto2

Virendranath (Chatto) was a smart polyglot (he knew English, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Persian and several Indian languages including Telugu); and had a way with women.  He was a sort of Don Juan Casanova; made many a romantic conquest.  The women for some reason were fascinated by him. He had many marriages: an English woman (1910); Irish woman (1912-1914). From 1920-1928 he lived with Agnes Smedley; and, in 1930 he married a Russian woman, Lydia Karunovskaya.

It was his involvement with Agnes Smedley that was most significant. It was during 1920 that Virendranath Chattopadhyaya met Smedley in Germany to where she had moved to escape the heat of pursuit from the American police; because of her involvement with the Indians who had been indicted in the Hindu–German Conspiracy Trial. They lived together for the next several years in Germany and other places; and were involved with various left-wing causes

Agnes Smedley lived with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya from 1921 to 1928. (He became a member of the Communist Party of Germany – KPD; but she was not).   In her autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth (1929) , Agnes wrote :

“The first person I met in Berlin was the Indian revolutionary leader Virendranath Chattopadhyaya. In New York, I had often heard of him as one who had helped form an Indian Government-in-exile; and build up a world-wide network of Indian revolutionary activity. In a very short time I had entered into a union with him. ”

 “ I married an artist, a revolutionary in a dozen different ways, a man of truly ‘fine frenzy’, nervous as a cat, always moving, never at rest… a thin man with much hair, a tongue like a razor and a brain like hell on fire.” ― Smedley’s letter, pg 230

Smedely described Virendranath the revolutionary :

‘ Virendranath was the epitome of the secret Indian revolutionary movement, and perhaps its most brilliant protagonist abroad. With a mind as sharp and as ruthless as a sober. He was thin and dark—to me he seemed like thunder, lightning and rain’. ‘His mind was modern, but his emotional roots were in Hinduism and Islam. Everyone understood and loved Viren; few understood me’.  

According to Sibnarayan Ray, Roy and Viren were rivals for Agnes: “Roy would have liked to work with her since he admired the latter’s intelligence and energy.

Chattopadyaya and Smedley broke up in 1928. Their life together had been turbulent mainly due to clashes over issues of class and cultural background.

In the year that led to her break with Viren, Agnes began to speak critically of Indian society and the need for reformations. She was especially disturbed about the issue of birth control. “India produced droves of ‘weak slaves’ and the Indians as also those sympathetic to Indian cause would be in stronger position if they acknowledged ‘India’s case’. The change should come from within the Indian society. They do not have to need British government or Christian missionaries”.

“My alliance with Virendranath terminated early in 1928. To me he was not just an individual, but a political principle. For me , he embodied the tragedy of a whole race. Had he been born English or American, I thought, his ability would have placed him among the great leaders of his age. Despite all this, I could not take up life with him.

Agnes saw Viren for the last time in 1933 and remembered later:

“Hitler was threatening, and Viren had left Germany for the Soviet Union, where he was connected with the Academy of Science in Leningrad. Upon my arrival in Moscow he came to me. …For me, he embodied the tragedy of a whole race. Had he been born in England or America, I thought, his ability would have placed him among the great leaders of his age… He was at last growing old, his body thin and frail, his hair rapidly turning white. The desire to return to India obsessed him, but the British would trust him only if he were dust on a funeral pyre. What happened to him after that I do not know.

(From Agnes Smedley, China Correspondent, first published in 1943; pp.15-23)

During 1930s,Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was working at the Indian Department of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Science in Leningrad.

His last wife and colleague, Dr. Lydia Karunovskaya, the head of the Indonesian Department at that time, later said that Viren was arrested in 15 July 1937 during the Great Purge of Stalin.  It was much later revealed that Virendranath was one among the 187 marked for execution. The sentence was pronounced on 2 September 1937; and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was executed on the same day.

In his Autobiography, decades later, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of Virendranath Chattopadhyaya:

“An entirely different type of person was Virendranath Chattopadhyay, member of a famous family in India. Popularly known as Chatto he was a very able and a very delightful person. He was always hard up, his clothes were very much the worse for wear and often he found it difficult to raise the wherewithal for a meal. But his humour and light heartedness never left him. He had been some years senior to me during my educational days in England. He was at Oxford when I was at Harrow. Since those days he had not returned to India and sometimes a fit of homesickness came to him when he longed to be back. All his home-ties had long been severed and it is quite certain that if he came to India he would feel unhappy and out of joint. But in spite of the passage of time the home pull remains. No exile can escape the malady of his tribe, that consumption of the soul, as Mazzini called it… Of the few I met, the only persons who impressed me intellectually were Virendranath Chattopadhyay and M.N. Roy. Chatto was not, I believe, a regular communist, but he was communistically inclined.”



Agnes Smedley (February 23, 1892 – May 6, 1950)

Agnes Smedley was born in Osgood, Missouri on Feb 23, 1892 as the second of five children. In 1901, when she was nine years of age, her family moved to Colorado. Smedley grew up under straitened circumstances. At an early age she began working after school to help support her family and she dropped out of school completely in 1907.  

At age of 16 she left home after her mother’s death and not willing to suffer her father’s cruelty to her and to her siblings. Later, she described herself as one who was a ‘poor white trash engaged in a brutalizing struggle to overcome their environment’. 

And, over the next several years she studied and worked at a variety of jobs in the West and Southwest – from tobacco stripper, stenographer, waitress, book agent or ‘just plain starveling’- and went through a brief, unhappy marriage.  She then realized that ‘for women marriage meant nothing but imprisonment and humiliation’. After divorcing in 1916, she left the Southwest in her early twenties for New York City, where she worked and attended classes at Normal School. In March 1912 (when about twenty) Agnes was elected as the Editor-in-Chief of the School’s weekly magazine – The Normal Student.  While in New York, she became involved in politics and the birth-control movement.

lala lajpath rai2

Smedley, who worked for Indian nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, in New York, soon became involved in his cause.  She took up a room near Lajpat Rai’s house; worked as his Secretary in the morning; attended classes at a New York University college; and, in the evening listened to Lajpat Rai on Indian History, culture and freedom movement.

She treated Lajpat Rai as a ‘father figure’. She said ’ I loved him as I might have loved my father… I learnt more from him than I could have leaned from any other source’.  Lala Lajpat Rai introduced Agnes Smedley to radical ideas and to issues concerning India’s struggle for freedom and to other Indian nationalists

agnes-smedley-pic1 in sari

Agnes Smedley was also attracted by Russian revolution and to the struggle of the Ghadar Party of California. But, Lajpath Rai was alarmed when she got too radical and attempted to form a radical Indian National Party.  Her idea was to turn it into a sort of parallel Indian government, a radical body representing Indian interests abroad. She sent letters (signed by her as Bose) appealing to Trotsky and other Bolsheviks seeking support for Indian independence and for the revolutionary groups working for Indian cause in America and elsewhere.

Her correspondence with Bolsheviks and   radical groups was intercepted. She was arrested by the  U.S. Naval Intelligence Bureau in 1918 under the Espionage Act, not only on charges of aiding Germany (in the Hindu–German Conspiracy Trial), but also on the counts of disseminating information on birth control methods.  

Agnes was described in the charges as ‘the the directing genius behind the plot’.  The arrest of Agnes Smedley was reported in New York Times of 19 March 1918. She was released on bail set at $10,000. Because of the Birth-control charges filed against Agnes, a campaign by Liberal women groups headed by Margret Sanger helped her release.

Again on 11 June 1918, a second indictment for violating the Espionage Act was filed against Agnes Smedley, in San Francisco, along with several Indian revolutionaries and American liberals. Since the Indian revolutionaries were said to be in league with Germans (who in 1918 were American enemies), all the defendants were charged as ‘German conspirators’; and were found guilty of conspiring to launch military expedition.

On 14 October 1918, Agnes Smedley made an appeal against her sentence; but, did not succeed. She was sent back to jail’; and, was released after eight months in prison.

During her prison-time, Agnes came in contact with an assortment of rebels: uncompromising crusaders for birth control (Kitty Marian); liberals who opposed US intervention in Russian revolution (Mollie Stelmer); and some socialists.  That drew Agnes closer to the socialist ideas; and, alienated her from American-establishment views.

Agnes Smedley became thoroughly disenchanted with the United States. Late in 1919, after serving out her time, she boarded a freighter bound for Europe, and finally reached Berlin, Germany. She lived in Germany   from 1919 to 1928. While in Berlin, she taught English at the University of Berlin, did graduate work in Asian studies there, wrote articles for several periodicals, and helped establish Germany’s first public birth-control clinic.

In Berlin, looking for the newspaper of the Indian exiles on whose behalf she had been imprisoned, she met the revolutionary leader Virendranath Chattopadhyaya in 1919. The two soon got caught up with each other. Smedley lived with Chattopadyaya for eight years, working along with him, studying Indian history and Chinese nationalism etc.

 During May 1921, She accompanied Virendranath Chattopadyaya to Moscow with a view to attend the Third World Congress of the Communist International – June 22-July 12, 1921. From May to September, they both were in Moscow.

While in Moscow, Viren and Agnes had interactions with M N Roy, who was already well established there. According to Sibnarayan Ray, Roy and Viren were rivals for Agnes.

In Berlin, Agnes Smedley and a group of progressive physicians with some financial aid from Margaret Sanger set up the first state birth-control clinic. But later, the German republican government took over the clinic and established several others which flourished until the Nazis came to power and women were ‘ordered back to the bedroom’. With Hitler threatening, Virendranath left Germany for the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad; and Agnes obtained a position with the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1928, as a special correspondent in China.

Smedley and Chattopadyaya broke up in 1928. Their life together had been turbulent due mainly to clashes over issues of class and cultural background. Though she admired Viren in many ways, she said ‘I could not take up life with him’. Her life had become very stressful. She took  psychoanalysis treatment in an attempt to combat depression; and, as a form of therapy, she began writing the autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth (1929).


Agnes Smedley, unlike Evelyn Trent, did not disappear; but remained  active till her last years. She was involved in the Communist movement in Germany and China ; and with Indian movement in 1920. She however never visited India. For her, India was a vision or a fascinating idea though she kept in touch with Nehru. She got more interested in China, reporting from there.

In 1928 Smedley went to China as special correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. From her base in Shanghai she travelled widely reporting enthusiastically on the growing communist movement. She lived on and off in China from 1928 to 1941. In 1930, Agnes befriended the great writer Lu Xun whom she called ‘the man who became one of the most influential factors in my life during all my years in China’ . Together with other intellectuals in mid-1932 , the two formed the first ‘League of Civil Rights’ in China to urge democratic rights and an end to the torturing of political prisoners.

By September, 1937 Agnes was on her way to Suiyuan and Chahar provinces where the Red Army was fighting. Although in constant pain from back injury, she reported about the condition of the wounded, about the starvation and rampant disease; and appealed for medical aid for the absolute need for ‘travelling dispensaries and public health workers’. She soon became a sort of ‘wandering first aid worker’ herself, often treating soldiers from her stretcher when she could no longer sit or stand. While at the front , Agnes finished a new book ‘China Fights Back’ before leaving for Hanzhou in 1938.

[ In the meanwhile, when Agnes Smedley was in China, on 29 March 1929, the police in Meerut, India, arrested about thirty-five Indian communists on charges of ‘conspiracy to deprive the British King of the sovereignty ‘. Agnes Smedley was prosecuted in absentia. Many of the arrested had translated into Urdu and published the articles sent from Berlin by Agnes Smedley (but, the parties had never met). In one the articles she had predicted a war between Britain and Soviet Union. Another of her articles was  her moving tribute to Lala Lajpat Rai whom she loved as her’ father figure’. Lala had died at the hands of the British police during a protest march in Lahore. Agnes had written poignantly expressing her shock and remorse for the death of the departed leader. Her note was published in India during April 1929. The Meerut case dragged for three years, till 1933.]

agnes war correspondent in china

In mid-1938 Agnes became a special wartime correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. During her travels with the Red guerrillas left behind of the Red Army , she lectured and inspected hospitals and reported on the extent of American aid to the Japanese war machine. In ill health and unable to stay with the guerrillas,  Agnes decided to leave China and go back to the US.

Smedley returned to the United States in 1941 and continued to write and speak widely in support of radical causes and also on behalf of the Chinese communists. Her Battle Hymn of China (1943) is considered an excellent example of war journalism. Her speeches and sentiments, however, provoked an increasingly hostile response.

During 1944, Agnes Smedley came under FBI surveillance and strict censorship; and she was branded as ‘a notorious communist expert on Far East ‘.  Her file recorded her as: ‘Agnes Smedley: native Born Communist’. Her mails were examined before delivery. After she received a mail from a German communist in Mexico on 22 October 1944, the surveillance was intensified; and, she came to be suspected as a Soviet agent.  In mid July of 1946, FBI put Agnes Smedley on its Special Security Watch list of suspected Soviet spies who were marked for ‘custodial detention’.

Agnes Smedley, sitting in coffee shop

American media, at the behest of FBI, talked about Agnes Smedley as Soviet spy. She retaliated by threatening legal action against the Government agency, and the media, whereupon the Secretary of Defense admitted that the charges against her by the FBI rested on no evidence. And, the investigations against Agnes Smedley were suspended in May 1947.

Agnes Smedley continued to write about the need for a new social order and a new foreign policy on the basis of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms – Freedom of Speech and Worship; and, Freedom from Want and Fear. The FBI again, noted in her writings and speeches shades and overtones of left-ideology; and , renewed surveillance against her.

In 1949 , General Douglas MacArthur released an army intelligence report that outrageously charged Agnes Smedley with being a ‘Soviet spy at large since 1930’. Agnes Smedley, however, continued her fight; confronting her adversaries with steely righteousness.

At a press conference and on Mutual Broadcasting System , Agnes Smedley flatly denied the charges made against her; and threw a challenge calling General MacArthur ‘a coward and a Cad’. She dared him to waive the immunity he enjoyed and be prepared to face a suit for libel.

On 15 February 1949, Col. George Eyster told New York Times:’ I believe, Miss Smedely should not have been mentioned by name until appropriate authorities had investigated her’.  On 18 February 1949, the Army apologized and retracted the charges made against Agnes Smedley. But, the surveillance against her continued.

The era of McCarthyism had become intolerable. Despite her public posture of defiance, Agnes was deeply distressed. Her health began to deteriorate. She could not sleep without drugs; and she developed heart troubles. Her friends too came under watch; and were harassed. To save them from further trouble, Agnes Smedley decided to move away from the conflict-zone.

agnes medley.jpg

In the fall of 1949, Agnes Smedley, in disgust, sought refuge in England, where she worked to complete The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh, a  biography of the Chinese communist military leader Zhu De.

She died in the UK after surgery for an ulcer , on May 6, 1950.

 During her last days , Agnes  longed to return to China, saying:  ‘As my heart and spirit have found no rest in any other land on earth except China, I wish my ashes to lie with the Chinese Revolutionary dead.’

Her wish was fulfilled a year after her death, when  her ashes were interred at the National Revolutionary Martyrs Memorial Park – the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery-  in Beijing in 1951.

agnes medley head stone2

Her book on Zhu De was published posthumously in 1956.

Agnes Smedley had a remarkable life. Agnes emerged from hard poverty to become a country school teacher, a writer; a participant in Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement; a self-appointed warrior for the poor; a socialist; a journalist; and, a freedom fighter. She was, for a major part of her life, on the battlefront of American politics, the Indian struggle for independence, and the Chinese Communist revolution. Agnes Smedley is regarded as of one of the most significant female political figures in recent American history. It is sad that due recognition and regard is not accorded to her and her work. 

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya (wife of Viren’s brother Harindranath Chattopadyaya) writing of Agnes Smedley, in 1986, said   :

“She strode forward into some of the stormiest earth shaking events of international history. She braved wars and shattering turmoil because of her single-minded devotion to the downtrodden, and the oppressed.”



Let’s talk of Evelyn Trent and Ellen Gottschalk the women intimately related to Roy’s life, in the succeeding  parts.




 Next Part

Sources and References

The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule by Kumari Jayawardena

Age of Entanglement by Kris Manjapra

Many pages of the Wikipedia

Socialism of Jawaharlal Nehru by Rabindra Chandra Dutt

India & the United States: Politics of the Sixties by Kalyani Shankar

How Stalin’s daughter defected in India-

The Lives of Agnes Smedley by Ruth Price

Trials that Changed History: From Socrates to Saddam Hussein by M.S. Gill (Chapter 19- Agnes Smedley)

All pictures are from Internet 


Posted by on January 18, 2016 in M N Roy


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts – Part 16

  1. S Banerjee

    June 29, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    Hats off to you for your hard work – to write this, came to know a lot – like had heard of Margaret Sanger but not Agnes Smedley’s involvement in birth control, rather didn’t know about Agnes ,
    very very well written articles,
    best wishes,
    S Banerjee

  2. sreenivasaraos

    June 29, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Dear Sreechandra

    Thank you for reading this; and, helping me correct an error

    Thanks again



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