Tag Archives: Agnes Smedley

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


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


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MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts – Part 15


MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts – Part 15

Continued from Part 14

Western Women in leftist and national movements (1)

Before we continue with Roy’s saga in India, we need to talk of the highly interesting phenomenon of the Western women participating in Indian independence struggle and in the leftist revolution ; as also getting involved with Asian men. It is one the fascinating aspects of the early decades of the twentieth century.

Such involvement of Western Women with men from their colonies; and, in matters that they considered detrimental to their mother-countries became a source of irritation and embarrassment to the European powers, especially to Great Britain.

Kumari Jayawardena in her Book The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Rule  has written wonderfully well on this very engaging subject. Much of what is said here is based on her Book. I thank her. 

The British did not mind so long as the British women confined their activities to social issues such as education, health, charity, social reform and such other harmless pursuits. They could tolerate it as facet of women’s motherly nature. And, their caring for the weak, oppressed, downtrodden; and, a general concern for the deprived – were viewed as giving expressions to virtues of Christian charity. The British authorities , either in Britain or in India , were not unduly worried about such pious preoccupations of their women as long as there was no breach of law and accepted norms of conduct.

White women as Theosophists were more daring in their questioning of the accepted ethnic and gender roles; and , the British did not relish the sight of their women of superior race and class wandering behind their Indian Gurus and singing their virtues and greatness. Though such women, surely, were annoying, they were not considered dangerous.

But, a more serious worry, anxiety and threat were the Western women socialists and communists. They were an anathema to the British rulers. Such impertinent women were viewed as the ultimate shame and embarrassment. On a more serious level, they were regarded as serious threat to the colonial rule and to the security of the State.

In some cases, severe threats, punishments and deportation were imposed on such erring women to prevent them from further engaging in activities that could harm British rule and British image. A close watch and scrutiny was kept on western women engaged in anti-colonial activities and entangled with Asian men. And, they would be arrested if there was a perceived breach of law.

But, when the British and other western women were legally married to Indian men, their deportation would become a difficult and a ticklish issue. Because, in most cases, the western women who got involved with Indian freedom movement or the leftist groups and with the Indian rebels, were , quite often, women coming from respectable middle class families.  They usually were well educated , having attended Universities and research institutions. They did not fall into the category of the   run-of-the-mill ‘undesirable low class’ ,  who could be put behind the bars routinely.

Further, such women who got involved with Asian men and leftist/anti-imperial activities were not only an embarrassment to the white-race, but also were a greater threat to the white race and the State.  Such white – educated women were looked down as treacherous traitors who brought shame and betrayed ‘white womanhood’.

They were a more serious threat to the Empire than wayward men. Instead of helping the white men and their colonial rule these misguided women were undermining the very system that supported their life, their homes and their existence. Their unspeakable socialist views and their scandalous marriage, their illicit liaison with Asian men were despised as most reprehensible. They not only had gone astray but would also bring up half-breeds treading their dangerous path.

The British Intelligence, therefore, kept track of the Indian revolutionaries and their western women. And, in fact there were quite a number of such most horrid pairs.

The Western  women – theosophists who claimed their rights as women to travel and follow their ‘faith’; and, the  socialist women who came out to fight imperialism; formed the  ‘feminist breakthrough’ by their rejection of the orthodox church and appropriation of alternative cultures and political ideologies.

Such ‘reprehensible’ alliances also caused discomfort to the Officers of the Empire placed in the colonies. The British dignity in the colonies also depended on their women’s allegiance to the Crown, to colonialism ; and on their modest behavior as polite ladies of refinement and  culture. The worst  sort of  women, for the colonialists, were those white women  who ‘traitorously’ rejected the moral duty of imperialism and embraced Asian men and Asian nationalism ; for, they were seen not only to reject  Empire but also the British men  . The British masculine pride in such cases would surely be hurt.

Another irritating dimension of the British women marrying Indian men was the bringing up of their children according to Indian traditions and culture. That truly annoyed both the Colonial officers and the Church.


The situation in Berlin, Germany, was slightly different. Here, relationship or living-together of white woman with Indian male did not suffer from the ‘betraying-the Crown–syndrome’; although there were other issues related to political ideology and criminality. Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s was the hub of Indian students and Indian intellectuals , as also of those  diverse  revolutionary groups ,  each  fighting the British rule in India , in its  own manner,

Indian students, in Berlin, openly engaged in anti-colonial gatherings; creating anti-British alliances; and even forging ties with Communists. The line between academic studies and radical politics was often blurred. Most of the Indian students got involved in radical anti-colonial politics.

A significant number of them on return to India grew into nationalist leaders. For instance; Dr. B R Ambedkar the doyen of Indian politics and the Social reform movement, for some time, studied Economics in the Bonn University during 1922-23.  He was quite fluent in German (having taken it as a minor at Columbia University) and wrote his C V dated 21 February 1921 submitted to the University, in German. Please click here to view his hand-written CV, in German language.  

The other more well known of such caliber were: Dr. Zakir Hussain, who later rose to become the President of India; Dr . Ram Manohhar Lohia the stormy Socialist leader. And, Gangadhar Adhikari, on return to India became the most influential theoretician in the Indian Communist Party from 1930s to 1940s. And, Dr. Meghnad Saha a noted physicist after returning to India played a major role as the nationalist organizer of science in India during 1930 to 1950.

Apart from radical politics, many Indian students got involved with German women. The instances of Indian students marrying German woman are too many to be recounted here. Just to cite a few cases: the brothers Anadi Nath Bahaduri and Prashath Bahaduri , who studied in Germany during the 1920s,  returned to Calcutta with their German wives Margrit and Gerta.   Apart from that, Abdul sattar Kheiri, Babar Mirza, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, and M N Roy all had German or Austrian wives. It appears that during 1930s at least six professors at the Aligarh University who had earlier studied in Germany had German wives.


Emilie Schenkl, Mrs Subhas Chandra BoseEimilie with daughter Anita

Much later, in the 1940s, one of the most notable cases was that of Subash Chandra Bose while attempting to destabilize British rule in India with German help had made Vienna, Austria as his base in Europe.  Here at Vienna, Bose fell in love with Austrian woman Emilie Schenkl (26 December 1910 – March 1996) and married her secretly, according to Hindu rites. His marriage with Emilie Schenkl was kept a secret, even later.  They had a daughter: Anita Bose (Pfaff).

Since Bose was unable to bring his family to India in the midst of wartime Europe, he left Schenkl, with a note addressed to his elder brother in India, Sarat Bose, confirming the identity of his wife and their baby daughter; and asking for them to be accepted into the family, should he die in the war.

Bose then moved from Germany to Southeast Asia in February 1943, and subsequently, he is believed to have died at the end of the war.

subash bose ina2 Subash Bose last known picture

And, after the war, Sarat Bose, his wife Bivabati and their three children, Sisir, Roma and Chitra, traveled to Vienna in the autumn of 1948 to meet Emilie and Anita. An emotional family meeting took place in Vienna when Sarat and Bivabati embraced Emilie and Anita into the Bose family. Sarat wanted Emilie and Anita to come to Calcutta to stay ; but , since Emilie was the sole care for her aging mother, she could not leave Vienna

Anita Bose

Please also see Emilie’s letter  26.7.1948 to Sarat Bose ]

subash bose ina3

But all such inter cultural marriages, as it usually happens, were not blissful or milk and honey.  The relations within the marriage were tormented by inter-cultural differences, conflict of ideas and affiliations.

The 1920s and 1930s were marked by ‘militant phase of feminism’. The western women that Virendranath Chattopadyaya and M N Roy came into contact had strong views on women’s liberation, both in the West and in India.

They were quite eloquent in expressing their views. There were also differences on the political line taken by Indian men. The western women took their own theoretical positions on certain public issues, like birth control etc. Therefore, there were always passionate arguments. Even Roy had problems with Smedley. Her views on women’s rights particularly on the issue of abortion were more radical than that of any other Indian nationalist or reformers of 1920s.

Many Indian communists living in the West tended to project their relation with western women or political-comrades as a sign of ‘progress’ and modernity.  The Indian men as socialists took a ‘progressive stand on the question of women’s equality’; but, their practice in day-to-day life differed from their stated principle. Roy also spoke and wrote that the modernization of Indian women was a ’historic necessity’ to transform the traditional outdated institutions which deprived women of their elementary human rights. In theory and in public stand he was much ahead of the contemporary scene. But, in his personal life and in his relations with the women in his group he did not seem to differ much from the contemporary male culture.

Kris Manjapra in his the impossible intimacies of M N Roy writes:

M N Roy’s life bore the stress marks of intimacies that were strange for his time. His intense private and professional relationship with Ellen Gottschalk, a German Jewish communist radical, was just one expression of the globe-straddling intimacies that disrupted the normative discourse of race, nation and colonial difference


The lot of western women who married fugitive Indian men – perpetually on ‘run’, very poor, nervous and highly insecure – was truly pathetic. And they did suffer a lot –physically, mentally and emotionally.  They also had to endure the pain, and humility of escapades and displacements.  To put it very mildly, for a Western woman, such marriage was a highly unrewarding experience, to say the least. 

Evelyn Trent Roy (wife of M N Roy) wrote that she was weary of ‘being hunted from place to place, country to country, of having to hide and always to be rewarded by a thick fog of suspicion and fear’. Similarly, Agnes Smedley, originally from Missouri, a partner of Virendranath Chattopadyaya in Berlin, recalled the extreme difficulties and ‘neurosis associated with anti-colonial inter-cultural lifestyle’.   She wrote:

‘We were desperately poor, because Viren had no possessions. I sold everything I owned in order to get money… We skirted the problem by frequently moving, changing names. But, our debts and difficulties seemed to increase by geometric proportions. More than death, I feared insanity”.

She suddenly left Viren in 1928.

As for men, the strain of living as fugitives in a foreign land, without a sense of home, in a hostile environment was indeed very severe. Many Indian revolutionaries in West became nervous wrecks (e.g. Lala Hardayal in Berlin).

Virendranath ‘Chatto_ Chattopadhyaya -stockholm

M N Roy and Virendranath Chattopadyaya fell seriously ill. Roy was affected with infection of the inner ear and severe stomach illness. Virendranath also suffered from varieties of stomach illnesses. In addition, he suffered from paranoia. It appears he never took the meal outside for fear of being poisoned. Virendranath‘s final wife, Russian, Lidilia Kazunovskala remembered him as ‘always in a state of fleeing, full of disease, sorrow, tension, always on alert’. Viren eventually left Berlin in 1928. After another year of wandering he settled down in Moscow for some years. But soon after Stalin’s program of purging started he became nervous again, because he came to know that he was being watched for his ‘deviations from ‘orthodox Marxism-Leninism’ in his talks. He was called an Indian nationalist and not a true Soviet. His worst fears were ,  sadly , proved right. He was taken in Stalin’s purge of 1938-1940 and murdered.


During the early part of the twentieth century the marriages between Indian men and Western women seemed to be quite common. Apart from Viren and Roy there were quite a number who married Western women.  Just to mention a few such, during 1920s and 1930s:

(a) Abani Mukherjee, who was in M N Roy’s communist group, was married to Rosa Fitingof, of Russian and Jewish origin. They had a son named Goga. Rosa Fitingof had joined the Communist Party in 1918; and was an assistant to Lydia Fotieva, Lenin’s Private Secretary when Abhani Mukherjee met her 1920. Fitingof and Abani Mukherjee were among the founding members of the Indian Communist Group formed at Tashkent. Later, she was also Roy’s interpreter.

During the 1930s, Abani Mukherjee worked at Moscow as an Indologist at the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Abhani Mukherjee fell a victim to the Great Purge in the late 1930s.  He was arrested on June 2, 1937. He was assigned for the first category of repression (execution by firearms) in the list “Moscow-Center” and executed on October 28, 1937

 (b) Dr, Anadi Bahaduri was member of Roy’s group in Berlin and was studying there for a Doctorate in Chemistry. His wife Margrit (born in 1907) of German Jewish origin continued to live in Calcutta after Bahaduri‘s death, teaching German.

(c) Also in Berlin was Saiyad Abdul Wahid Abai, an Indian Communist who married a German Jewish woman Kaethe Hulda Wolf.

(d) Another was Pandurang Sadashiv Khankhoje (1884-1966) from the rival group of Chattopadyaya. He was in the Ghadar Party in California; was named in the the Hindu-German Conspiracy; and, fled to Mexico in the early twenties (1920). He worked in the ministry of Agriculture in Mexico. He led the Mexican corn breeding program and was appointed Director of the Mexican Government’s Department of Agriculture. And, in 1936 he married a Belgian – Jeanne Alexandrine Sindic (born 1913).Both returned to India after independence. He settled down in Nagpur; and later went into politics. Pandurang Khankhoje died on January 22, 1967.


(e) And yet another was the Punjabi leader Baba Pyare Lal Bedi (B P Bedi) ,  an author and philosopher,  and his English wife Freda Houlston Bedi   from Derbyshire (daughter of Francis Edwin Houlston and Nellie Diana Harrison ).


Freda (5 February 1911 – 26 March 1977), by any account, had an unusual life. She was born in Austria; raised and educated in England ( Masters from St. Hugh’s in Oxford ) and in Sorbonne , Paris  ; married a Sikh at Oxford in 1933 ;  in  1934  went to live in India where she spent the rest of her life; and, later became an ordained Buddhist Nun.

Before they moved to India , Andrew Whitehead writes,  Baba Pyare Lal and Freda Bedi  spent several months , during  1933-4 , in Berlin where Baba Bedi had secured a reserch post. Their first child was born in Berlin . And in the autumn of 1934, the Bedis and their four month old baby reached India . After they settled down in Lahore – India, both got busily  involved in  the national independence movement during the 1930s and  1940s.  The Bedis also became invoved in left-wing politics and in  journalism. They published several books and edited India-Analyzed (1934).   And later,  while paricipating in the national freedom movement, Freda was arrested and detained  in  Lahore jail with her children and with Gandhi. She was in prison  for about six months during 1941-42 .


Her husband, Baba Bedi , it is said,  spent long  years (?) in prison for his activities in the struggle for independence.  Baba Pyare Lal Bedi (1909–1993) later took to life of mysticism and spiritual healing.

Freda_Bedi_and_Baba_Pyare_Lal_Bedi,_at_Nishat_Bagh,_Srinagar 2,_1948Freda Bedi (1911-1977) freda bedi

After release from prison, they moved to Kashmir. Freda became the Professor of English at Srinagar in Kashmir. Both Freda and Baba Bedi were active in Kashmir during the 1940s; and were said to be  close to Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference. Baba Bedi is said to have drafted the party’s distinctly radical ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto.

Andrew Whitehead (Freda Bedi’s biographer) mentions that following the great famine of Bengal in 1943, Freda toured , during January 1944,   the districts  most afflicted by famine. By then the famine had brought in its wake epidemic and disease. She took great risk  of touring in the infected areas and moving among sick people dying out of sheer hunger and neglect . Freda wrote of her experiences in the famine stricken Bengal  in her Book Bengal Lamenting. (Published in 1944)

Bengal Lamenting by Freda Bedi

In the words of  Andrew Whitehead :

The book is more than a cry of pain, a call to pity, a picture of another tidal wave of tears that has wrenched itself up from the ocean of human misery. It is a demand for reconsideration on a national scale of a problem that cannot be localized, a plea for unity in the face of chaos, one more thrust of the pen for the right of every Bengali and every Indian to see his destiny guided by patriots in a National Government of the People.

After Independence, she edited Social Welfare, a magazine of the Ministry of Welfare ; and was  also appointed  as the social worker of the United Nations Social Services, assigned  to Burma. And much later , she was  nominated as the advisor on Tibetan Refugees to the Ministry of External Affairs , Government of India.

In 1952, while working  for the United Nations, Freda went to Rangoon ; and , there she was drawn to Buddhism , learnt Vipassana meditation with Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Titthila . Freda  was one of the first Westerners to be initiated into Vipasana.

Nehru with the Dalai Lama

Then in 1959, when the Dalai Lama arrived in India along with thousands of Tibetans, Nehru asked Freda Bedi to help settle them ; and , he then  put her in charge of the Social Welfare Board

Freda was very drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and spent the rest of her life as a leader who looked after the welfare of  Tibetans in India . And  simultaneously, she took to practicing Tibetan Buddhism of the Kagyu School under the direct guidance of the Karmapa. She also became the Principal of a school established by the Dalai Lama in Delhi for young Tibetans. In 1963, Freda helped in setting up Karma Drabgyu Thargay Ling ,  a  nunnery for Tibetan women in northern India.  Besides , she set up a number of other organizations , such as : Friends of Buddhism,  New Delhi ; Tibetan Friendship Group ; Young Lama’s Home School, Dalhousie; and Mahayana Monastic House.

Freda Bedi

In 1966, Freda was ordained as a Buddhist monk by the Karmapa; and , was given the name Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo or Sister Palmo. She was the first Western woman to  be ordained in Tibetan Buddhism.  

She was in contact with the Tibetans right from the moment they arrived in India; guiding and  helping them in several ways. She arranged for education of number of youbg Tibetans in UK . Sister Palmo was a ‘Mother-figure’ ; and, was affectionately adddressed by Tibetans as ‘Mummy’. It is said; Sister Palmo was uniquely influential, in a quiet way.  She became an adept  in Western Tibetan Buddhism; became a Dharma teacher; and guided many disciples.

As an ordained monk, Sister Palmo  undertook several tours to West covering Britain, Europe, U.S.A. Canada and South Africa lecturing, giving Dharma instructions and initiations. She also supervised the activities of the Tibetan Buddhist centers set up in Scotland, USA and other places. In her efforts to spread the message of the Dharma, during her tours, she met and discussed with several leading thinkers. During her tour of 1974-5, she visited the Vatican and met the Pope.

She also turned into a Tibetan-English translator; translating number of Tibetan woks and hymns into English (the language ‘my birth-land’ – as she said). Her translations of  A Garland of Morning Prayers – in the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism; and  other prayers are quite well regarded.

Please also check : for more.

In the later part of her life, she moved to a retreat in Sikkim, took to meditation Intensely ;  wrote,  and  initiated and guided a spiritual movement that later  became the ‘New Age’ movement.

Freda Houlston Bedi – Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo was  indeed  an extraordinary person who lived an active and a purposeful life in the service of her fellow beings. She excelled in all the aspects of her life. And, in that she found her fulfilment .

She died peacefully  in New Delhi on 26 March 1977, at the age of 66.

The Venerable Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo (Freda Bedi) is revered as almost a Saint in Tibetan Buddhism. 

According to Ms. Swati Jain, a Stupa is erected in Memory of Freda Bedi (Sister Palmo) at the Palpung Sherabling Monastic Seat in Bhattu, Kangra District,  Himachal Pradesh.

Stupa for Freda



Freda Bedi  was the mother of two sons, Ranga and Kabir Bedi ( a film actor) and a daughter, Gulhima 

freda bedi 2

(please check : )

(Please Check here for more on Freda Bedi – Andrew Whitehed’s page )


Alys Fiaz Ahmed

(f) Another couple in the left politics was the famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz of Lahore and his wife Alys George (September 22, 1914 – March 12, 2003) the daughter of a London bookseller. She and her sister Cristobel were active in leftist circles during  the 1930s; and, both had worked with Krishna Menon in the India League at London. Her sister married Mohammad Din Tasser of Lahore (also in left movement). On a visit to India, Alys met and married Faiz and worked in politics and journalism . She was the founding member of the Democratic Women’s Association. He died in 1984. She continued to live in Pakistan as human rights activist.

[ For more on Alys George and Faiz Ahmed Faiz please check their daughter Salima Hashmi‘s page at

Salima Hashmi is a Lahore-based artist, cultural writer, painter, and anti-nuclear activist.]


(g) But the most sensational of  all  such relations was that of  an early associate of M N Roy and the one who financed Roy’s health care in Switzerland as also his trip to India. He was Raja Brajesh Singh a wealthy prince hailing from the royal family of Kalakankar near Allahabad; and an Indian Communist.  His affair with Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana became sensational. 

Svetlana had an unlikely romance with Indian Communist Brajesh Singh Svetlana Alliluyeva3 bw

Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva (later known as Lana Peters), was the youngest child and the only daughter of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin’s second wife. 

Svetlana, when she was 17, married (in 1943) Grigory Morozov, a fellow student from Moscow University, though Stalin hadn’t likeed it. They had a son Josef (Iosif) in 1945.  And, their divorce took place in 1947. Svetlana married, for the second time (in 1949), Yuri Zhdanov, the son of Stalin’s close associate. A daughter, Katherine, was born to them in 1950. And, soon thereafter they were divorced. Josef Stalin died in 1953.

In 1963, while Brajesh Sing was recuperating from bronchitis in Sochi, Russia, by the side of the Black Sea, he met Svetlana. The two began to talk about a book by Rabindranath Tagore that Svetlana had found in the hospital’s library. Singh was the most peaceful man Svetlana had ever met. He protested when the hospital wanted to kill the leeches they had used in his treatment, and he opened windows to let flies escape. When she told him who her father was, he exclaimed “Oh!” and never mentioned it again.

By then, Brajesh Sing had already married twice – to Lakshmi Devi and to Leea, an Austrian woman. When they met in 1963, Svetlana was about 37 years; and Brajesh Singh (said to be old enough to be her father) was about sixty, about twenty-three years elder to Svetlana.  It is not clear whether they were married formally. It appears that the Soviet Primer Alexi Kosygin had strongly disapproved of Svetlana getting married to Brajesh Singh. (She however persisted in calling herself as Brajesh Singh’s wife.) They lived together for four years as man and wife at Sochi until Brajesh Singh died on 31 October 1966.

Svetlana ensured that Brajesh Singh was cremated according to Hindu rites. Thereafter; she decided to take his ashes to India for immersion in the Ganges. That took time because the Soviet leaders tried hard to dissuade her from making that journey. Finally, the arrangements for her travel to India were made at the highest level. And, that was not difficult since Brajesh Singh’s nephew Dinesh Singh was a confidant of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was also  a member of her council of ministers.

Svetlana arrived in India on 20 December 1966 with ashes of Brajesh Sigh. She stayed with Brajesh’s family at their ancestral royal home at Kalakankar near Allahabad (UP). After a couple of days, on 25 December 1966, Brajesh’s ashes were immersed in the Holy Ganges, with Svetlana watching the ritual, from the shore,  dressed in widow’s white sari.

She lived happily with Brajesh’s extended family; and got on very well with all its members. She wanted to stay back in India; and, Brajesh’s family was also willing and happy to let her stay with them. Svetlana asked Dinesh Singh (Brajesh’s nephew) to use his influence with Indira Gandhi to let her stay in India. But the Soviet Government insisted that she should be back in Moscow before the end of March 1967. Indira Gandhi , not daring to antagonize the Soviets, advised Svetlana, through Dinesh, to return to Russia. Exasperated, Svetlana approached socialist Rammanohar Lohia in Allahabad  for help so that she could stay in India and  build a memorial for Brajesh. He promised  to help; but could do very little.

Svetlana then reached New Delhi for  making  arrangements  for her travel  to Moscow; and stayed there at the Soviet Embassy where Ambassador Nikolai Benediktov was advising her to return home . Next day , on the evening of 6 March 1967, Svetlana went out to finalise her travel arrangements ; but,  she asked the  taxi to drive  straight to the American embassy. The embassy had shut for the day. She told the duty officer who she was and what she wanted. In panic, the duty officer rang up  Ambassador Chester Bowles and told him that he must come to his office immediately to deal with a matter that could not be discussed on the phone. Mr Bowles arrived, talked to Svetlana and gave her a lined pad to write down why she wanted to go the US; and,  not to her own country.

[Ambassador Chester Bowls, later recalled: In about two hours she put together a very eloquent sixteen to eighteen page statement in excellent English; a dramatic story of her life , who her father was, who her mother was, and why she wanted to leave Russia and come to America. Please see; India & the United States: Politics of the Sixties  by Kalyani Shankar. P.387 to 393]

While Svetlana was writing her piece, Ambassador Bowles sent an “Eyes Only” telegram to the Secretary of State Dean Rusk explaining the situation and asking for instructions. He took care to conclude his cable with the words: “If I do not hear from the State Department by midnight (Indian time), I would, on my responsibility, give her the visa.”

According to the Ambassador’s subsequent account of the incident, as he had expected, there was not a word from Washington by the deadline. So he arranged to send Svetlana to the airport in the company of a CIA officer to catch a flight to Rome.

Only after she had reached Rome safely did the sensational news of her dramatic. great escape  was leaked to the Press.

There was, of course, a huge uproar in Moscow and in New Delhi ; the US government  blandly explained  that  it   merely  helped  Svetlana on humanitarian grounds.

After a brief stay in Switzerland, she flew to the US. Upon her arrival in New York City in 1967, the then 41-year-old said, “I have come here to seek the self- expression that has been denied to me for so long in Russia.”

smiles for photographers at her press conference April 26.

Three days after she landed in America, Svetlana sent her children in Moscow (Iosif and Yekaterina, twenty-one and sixteen) a long letter. Soviet Communism , she said, had failed as an economic system and as a moral idea. She couldn’t live under it. “With our one hand we try to catch the moon itself, but with another one we are obliged to dig out potatoes the same way it was done a hundred years ago,” she wrote. She urged Iosif to study medicine and Yekaterina to continue to pursue science. “Please, keep peace in your hearts. I am only doing what my conscience orders me to do.”


The note that Svetlana wrote while in the US Embassy at New Delhi along with her “Twenty Letters to a Friend” was published within months of her arrival in the US; and it became a best-seller. The book in the form of a series of letters to her friend, the physicist Fyodor Volkenstein, described her family’s tragic history . The message of the book, it seemed, was that being one of Stalin’s relatives was nearly as terrible as being one of his subjects.

According to Brajesh Singh’s family in India, Svetlana did not forget her commitment for the memorial for Brajesh: “She kept sending money for many years for a hospital in Kalakankar village in Brajesh’s name, until it was taken over by the government”.

Svetlana settled down in Princeton New Jersey, where she lectured and wrote. From 1970–73, she was married to American architect William Wesley Peters with whom she had a daughter, Olga. Svetlana died in Richland Center, Wisconsin, U.S, from complications arising from colon cancer, on 22 November 2011, at the age of eighty-five (28 February 1926 to22 November 2011).

Svetlana married American Wesley Peters, with whom she had a daughter

For more please do read a detailed article :

My Friend, Stalin’s Daughter by Nicholas Thompson which appeared in the March 31, 2014 Issue of The New Yorker.


Let’s talk about the intertwining lives of what was called as the Left Quartet – M N Roy, Evelyn Trent, Virendranath Chattopadyaya and Agnes Smedley, in the subsequent parts.

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 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)

Freda Bedi  ( )

All Pictures are from Internet


Posted by on January 17, 2016 in M N Roy


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