The Prison Years
The Statesman of Bombay in its edition of Wednesday 22 July 1931 reported that the Indian revolutionary and communist M N Roy was arrested at Bombay at about 5.00 A M, early in the morning, on 21 July 1931. It was reported that at the time the police rushed in with pistols in hand, Roy was asleep in a third-floor of a Chawl in a working-class neighborhood; and he was awakened from sleep; and asked if he was M N Roy. And when he replied in positive, he was arrested. Roy did not resist and calmly went with the police.
Roy was arrested for the charges that were framed against him seven years ago, in absentia, in the Cawnpore – Bolshevik Conspiracy Case of 1924. Roy was charged under Section 121-A of the Indian Penal Code, “conspiring to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty in India.”
Justice R A Jahagirdar (Retd) in his article The Trial of M. N. Roy explains that the relevant section the Indian Penal Code is widely worded. Section 121 as it then ( in 1930) stood was as follows: “Whoever wages war against the Government of India or attempts to wage such war or abets the waging such war shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine” .
But the charges filed against Roy citing his alleged crimes said to he have been committed during 1924. But, during that time, Roy was not resident in India. He was, therefore, booked under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code.
Section 124-A…..read “Whoever by words, either spoken or intended to be read—-attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in British India shall be punished with……”.
[Here, Justice R A Jahagirdar remarks: Some observations are in order. The offence Sedition did not mean that the person be made punishable for mere use of words but when the words used are tantamount to disorder or disaffection. Section 124-A, even as it then stood, punished when the words used the character of action. The Section has been amended several times and has been the subject matter of decisions of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court of India.]
On his arrest, Roy was detained in custody for more than eleven days, during which a large number of arrests were made all over the country on charges of harboring Roy. Those arrested on such charges, included workers of the Indian National Congress; the Trade Union leaders ; members of the executive committee of the Bombay Nawjuwan Bharath Sabha ( a youth organization); and , Ms. Louise Geissler of Germany, a close friend of Roy from his Comintern days. (She had arrived in Bombay sometime in May. The police who knew of her departure from Europe were following her movements closely.)
While Roy was held in custody, no one, not even his lawyers (including Jawaharlal Nehru) was allowed to meet or communicate with him. No newspapers and journals were allowed. Telegrams, Letters addressed by Roy and his supporters to Ramsay MacDonald (the British Prime Minister) , the members of the British Parliament and other eminent persons were withheld. The contention of the British Government was that Roy was plotting to use his trial ‘for seditious and revolutionary purposes harmful to the State’; and therefore has to be contained.
Thousand of persons gathered in front of the police station and demonstrated demanding immediate release of Roy.
Roy was then secretly taken to Cawnpore to stand trial there. The shrewd British authorities had selected Cawnpore as the venue of the trial, because the jury system was not prevalent there (unlike in Metropolitan Presidency cities like Bombay and Calcutta). The trial was not held, as per usual practice, in the open Court. But, his trial was conducted within the jail premises, behind the walls of jail where Roy had been lodged. That was because, the Government was anxious to avoid publicity and public demonstrations. Roy was also not allowed to make an oral defense statement in the Court. The Prosecution evidence also consisted entirely of letters said to have been written by Roy which were intercepted or obtained otherwise from the recipients. Copies or photographed letters which were intercepted and reposted; and pamphlets and other publications which accompanied the letters also formed part of the evidence. And, Roy was also not allowed to produce any defense witnesses.
Mr. Rose-Alston was the Chief Counsel for the prosecution. Roy’s trial was called the Cawnpore Conspiracy trial because the charges in the original trial in which Dange and some others were convicted could not be held against Roy since he was outside India at that time. His trial was separated and was held after he was arrested in 1931.
While he was in Cawnpore jail, Roy was deliberately kept away from his associates who were facing trial under the Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929-1933). Roy was also excluded from the Meerut Trial, though he could very well have been charged along with the thirty-three communists including many from what was known as the Roy Group. The prosecution Counsel in the Meerut Trial was said to have mentioned that the ‘British authorities did not want the Meerut prisoners to have any contact with Roy’. Another reason for keeping Roy away from the Meerut Trial could be that the charges under the Meerut case were filed based on a letter purported to have been written by M N Roy during December 1927. But, the letter, as the prosecution knew very well, was indeed a forgery.
In the mean time, Roy had been insisting that he did not write any such letter to anyone in India. Roy’s statement was published in the Free Press Journal of Bombay on 15 September 1928.The WPP (Workers and Peasants Party) had also issued a statement comparing the alleged ‘Roy letter’ to the ‘Zinoviev letter’, a forgery , used by the Conservative Party of Britain to successfully bring down the Labor Party in 1924.
The British did not like to complicate matters by implicating Roy in the Meerut trial. Strangely, the Communist group of accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case when tendering a revised list of witnesses withdrew Roy’s name from their list.
Roy challenged his arrest on several grounds, some of which were as follows: (a) The trial was without justification; (b) The trial should be held in the regular open court; (c) There should be trial by jury; and (d) the charges leveled against him pertained to offence said to have been committed by him during the year 1924 , at which time he was thousands of miles away from India ; and therefore there are no grounds whatsoever for charging him with offences in India during that period.
The challenges made by Roy were rejected. Instead of the Jury, a bench of four Assessors was appointed.
There was a long list of charges made against Roy; but , basically the main charge was that Roy had by communications from abroad instigated the people of India to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty of British India. In his written statement Roy rebutted that charge; and, argued that the British King had no sovereignty over India. But, Roys’ statement was not allowed to be read, nor was it taken on record.
Ultimately the Session Case opened on 3rd November 1931, and concluded on 9 January 1932. Two of the four Assessors found Roy “not guilty”. The Sessions Judge, however, proceeded to hold him guilty; and, to accord a sentence of twelve years of rigorous imprisonment (on 9 January 1932).
Roy was taken immediately under armed guard to Bareilly Central Jail for completion of his sentence. Roy, however, managed to smuggle out his 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. (please click)
Roy was unapologetic for his advocacy of the use of armed struggle against British colonialism, in his own defence declaring. His stand was:
“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.”
In the meantime, Roy’s friend and follower Ellen Gottschalk, who at that time was in France, launched a campaign in Europe gathering support for release of Roy. Her dedication and determination to save Roy was truly amazing. Although her resources were meager, Ellen travelled in Europe and to England; and was also involved with arranging mass protests in Hamburg (Germany) , Paris and even in some cities in America . Ellen Gottschalk also organized an international letter- writing campaign demanding the early release of M N Roy. Some of the eminent persons who responded to Gottschalk’s call; and, who sent letters of concern to British authorities, included Jawaharlal Nehru, Albert Einstein, Roger Baldwin and Fenner Brockway. Her saga of self-less love and single-minded determination to save her lover, has rarely been equalled.
In India, protests demanding Roy’s unconditional release were organized on big scale by Trade Unions, Youth Organizations and Farmer Groups. The Legal Defence teams were formed.
An appeal was preferred; and, it was heard by Justice Thomas of the Allahabad High Court. The appellant’s advocate was young and able Kailas Nath Katju, (who, years later became a prominent Congress leader and a member of India’s Union Cabinet). Katju argued : the Court had no jurisdiction; the charges were not properly framed; the accused had not been properly committed to the Court of Session; and, inadmissible evidence was relied upon, etc.
Katju argued on merits of the evidence that the accused should not be punished for what the Court regarded as extreme views; and, that the accused did not instigate revolt. He also argued that law by itself does not prohibit a person from having extreme views and academically discussing them. In short, the accused might have had acute views; but, he had not acted in pursuance of those views. The accused had committed no crime.
The Appellate Judge dismissed the appeal; but, mercifully it reduced the sentence to six years. The appeal was decided on 2 May 1933. The Judge in his judgment held that :
“With the knowledge that the appellant considered that he could morally resort to force, it is impossible to put an innocent interpretation on his actions and to hold that he was engaged between the years 1921 and 1929 in peaceful, legitimate political propaganda”.
A further appeal to the Privy Council was available; but , it was not pursued for the fear that an unfavorable verdict of the Privy Council would not only cause more harm in the case, but would also set an adverse precedent in England.
In the confusion that followed, the Case papers, including the certified copy of the High Court judgment were lost; and, no appeal was filed. Six years’ imprisonment became permanent. That also brought to end the chapter which had started with the arrest and trial of Dange and others.
Although Roy was sentenced to Six years by the court, he ultimately served Five years and four months (till November 1936), sitting in five different jails. As an under-trial Roy was held as an A –class prisoner; but , after conviction , he was imprisoned with B-class status. Appeals made by his friends within India as also form those outside India to treat Roy as an A-class prisoner, did not succeed.
Jawaharlal Nehru has said in his Autobiography:
“I was attracted to him because of his remarkable intellectual capacity. I was attracted to him because he seemed such a lonely figure, deserted by everybody. The British Government was naturally after him; nationalist India was not interested in him; and those who were called communists in India, condemned him as a traitor to the cause.”
Within about a weeks’ time in Bareli Jail, Roy managed to establish contacts with the outside world, ostensibly with the aid of sympathetic Jail warders and other Jail staff. ( The contact though broken often with the shifting of warders and transfer of Roy from one prison to another , somehow , continued). Roy, generally, was a well behaved prisoner. He obeyed the prison rules; and did his allotted work diligently. But, one prison rule that he persistently broke was the one that prohibited any outside contact.
Roy used his contacts with Jail Wards to smuggle out letters, manifestos, articles for newspaper and even manuscript of his book China in Revolt which was published, in 1935, under his assumed name S K Vidyarthi. The book was re-published in 1941 under his name (M N Roy) as My Experiences in China. Similarly, Roy drafted and smuggled out the manuscript of his Our Task in India, a manifesto or a guideline for the Roy Groups.
As regards the letters; the prison rules allowed him to send out one letter per month; its length was prescribed; and, the letters were regularly censored and blotched. And yet; Roy was also able to smuggle out letters to prominent persons, including Jawaharlal Nehru. His Letter to the Congress Socialist Party was , in a similar manner, sent from jail.
Roy managed to keep himself remarkably well informed about the political situation in India and abroad. He thought and wrote about many changes that were taking place; and also about the ups and downs of the Communist movement. The articles which he wrote about current affairs while he was in prison found their way to newspapers such as The Advocate of Bombay and Mahratta of Poona.
As regards the letters Roy sent out from prison , a special mention need to be made of the ones he wrote to his friend and follower Ellen Gottschalk, during the period from 11 August 1931 to November 1936. Gottschalk later published those letters in book-form, as Letters from Jail (1943).
The letters to Ellen throw light on the non-political and human side of Roy; and also provide a glimpse of his varied interests in life. Apart from his love towards Ellen, the letters reveal his emotional state, his reflections on life, and his ways of thinking and understanding the philosophy behind cultural, social and political aspects of human existence.
In his letters to Ellen, Roy wrote about the clothes he wore, the books he read, and the work he did. He deflected Ellen’s concerns about his physical and mental well-being. The letters reveal the emotional strains of lonesome suffering. They express his longing for the beloved, ‘I have a feeling of distress while writing these letters. I send them off in the void, never knowing whether they will reach the destination’; ‘I anxiously wait for your monthly letters’. Later, again he wrote, ‘I am really homesick, and am eagerly looking out for the day when we shall celebrate a grand reunion’. At the same time, Roy tells Ellen not to lose heart: ‘we must take things as they come, and hope for better days’. But, towards the end of the six years, just before his release, the darkest tones appear in his letters to Ellen: ‘I am tired of this world. It appears to be doomed to destruction or a possible rebirth after a protracted period of torture and torment’
Roy also expressed fondness for his friends. He enquired repeatedly about their common acquaintances, especially the German communist leaders, Heinz Brandler and August Thalheimer. ‘I am glad to know that our family [the International Organization of Opposition Communists] remains so firm and optimistic. I eagerly look out for the day when I shall again have the pleasure of being with those good old friends, maybe in this country.
While Roy was in prison, Ellen Gottschalk and Roy’s friends in Germany, kept providing him with books and journals which he wanted to read. Thanks to the efforts of Ellen Gottschalk, Roy , in prison, was allowed to receive packages of books from friends in order to carry on his studies and writing .The books he received over the six years of his imprisonment were mostly sent from friends in Paris and New York who were members of the German Party of Opposition Communists (KPO). By November 1936, a total of 157 books had reached him.
Since, Roy as a prisoner was not allowed books and journals of political nature. The books he read deeply were all concerned with history, philosophy and science.
Roy was much impressed by French Jacobins (advocating egalitarian democracy and engaging in terrorist activities during the French Revolution of 1789) . He was convinced that the revolution in India should be under the banner ‘not of communism, but of Jacobinism’. He also recommended Jacobinism to the Indian communists. In addition , he also wanted the Indian National Congress to get rid of Gandhism and of its bourgeois hegemony. The Congress, according to Roy, was a united national front, a mass nationalist movement; and was not a party of any particular class that could wield veto powers. ‘Gandhism’ according to Roy was dangerous because “on the strength of one man’s personality, India was falsely construed as a pure cultural entity”. For Roy, the ‘vulgarity’ of Gandhism lay in its insistence on cultural nationalism on an unchanging residue of group identity.
Roy used his prison years for writing a systematic study of ‘the philosophical consequences of modern science’, which, in a way, was a re-examination and re-formulation of Marxism to which he had been committed since 1919.
During the jail days, M.N. Roy produced extensively political, philosophical and social criticism. The reflections, which Roy wrote down in jail, grew over a period of five years into nine thick volumes (approximately over 3000 lined foolscap-size pages). He was supplied with one Note Book at a time; a fresh Note Book was issued only after he had deposited with the jail authorities the one that he had completed. This was rather inconvenient, as he could not refer back to what he had written earlier. And yet, his literary output was consistent and phenomenal.
Besides his writings, Roy spent time extensively, on the works such as Feuerbach’s Wesen Des Christentums (meaning: The Essence of Christianity) that he wanted to apply to the Indian situations. The Book first published in 1841 explained Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy and critique of religion. It was considered a classic . And, it is said, Marx and Engels were strongly influenced by Feuerbach’s idea of God as a human abstraction. Marx, later, used Feuerbach’s ideas in his own theory of alienation.
Roy’s ‘Prison Manuscripts’ have not so far been published in full; and are currently preserved in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Archives in New Delhi. However, selected portions from the manuscript were published as separate books in the 1930s and the 1940s.
The published books based on Roy’s Prison handwritten notebooks include Materialism (1934); Science and Superstition (1940); Heresies of the 20th century (1939); Fascism (1938); Historical Role of Islam (1939); Ideal of Indian womanhood (1941) ; Science and Philosophy (1947) and India’s Message (1950) . His monumental work tentatively entitled “The Philosophical consequences of Modern Science” is an outstanding contribution to the fields of philosophy and science. It is about his re-examination and re-formulation of Marxism to which he subscribed since 1919.
As Ramendra Nath writes in his Manabendra Nath Roy (1887—1954) :
“ These writings show that Roy was not satisfied with a primarily economic explanation of historical processes. He studied and tried to assess the role of cultural and ideational factors in traditional and contemporary India, in the rise and expansion of Islam, and in the phenomenon of fascism. He was particularly severe on the obscurantist professions and practices of neo-Hindu nationalism. Roy tried to reformulate materialism in the light of latest developments in the physical and biological sciences. He was convinced that without the growth and development of a materialist and rationalist outlook in India, neither a renaissance nor a democratic revolution would be possible. In a way, seeds of the philosophy of new humanism, which was later developed fully by Roy, were already evident in his jail writings.”
Apart from the traditional subjects as politics, philosophy etc, Roy also wrote persistently about sexual crimes and ‘abominations’ committed by supposedly deviant women. The cases Roy documented in his prison writings were taken from newspapers and from cases he heard about in prison-gossip. All those ‘stories’ were about the sexual relations of women beyond the bounds of the patriarchal Hindu family. He wrote about sexual abuse of widowed daughters or daughters-in-law; of deviant women and their impossible desires; forbidden intimacies within and outside the family etc.
Roy’s writing on those subjects was interesting and relevant. That was because , the period of Roy’s imprisonment in the 1930s corresponded with the heightening of the ‘woman question’ in India, and rising nationalist debate about reproductive rights, women’s property rights, child marriage and the institution of widowhood etc. By reflecting on the position of the so-called deviant woman, Roy articulated a vision of revolutionary change in the 1930s colonial setting.
“Roy drew parallels between imperial and patriarchal domination within the Hindu family by focusing on the way strictures and punishments were imposed on the intimate realm. The figure of the ‘deviant’ woman, driven by sexual desire to trespass the bounds of marriage, became the focus of M N Roy’s prison writings in such work as The Ideal of Indian Womanhood, written in 1935 and published in 1941, and Why Men are Hanged and Crime and Karma: Cats and Women, written over the course of 1933 to 1936 but ultimately published in 1957.”
[For more on that, please check The impossible intimacies of M N Roy by Kris Manjapra.]
The years 1931-36 marked the upsurge in political prisoners following the aggressive counter-terrorism campaign launched by the British. Most of the prisons, especially in North India, were overcrowded. The Bareilly Central Jail , where Roy was held from January 1932 to March 1933 and again from May 1933 to April 1934, was one of the oldest ( set up in 1848 ), the largest and the most unpleasant jails in Uttar Provinces, with a total of more than about 4,000 prisoners.
The dismal prison conditions took a severe toll on Roy’s health. Apart from severe heat conditions, Roy suffered from several other ailments during his confinement, such as dilation of heart; pain in the chest; stomach and digestive problems; loss of teeth; and frequent feverish conditions. and constant pain from a chronically infected inner ear continued to bother him.
He suffered most during the oppressive summer months of the first three years in Cawnpore and Bareli Jails. He could not stand the rigor of Jail routine along with unbearable heat and suffocation. In spite of many representations, of his own and of his friends in India, Europe and America, he was not shifted to a cooler place in the Hills. In the summer of 1934, he became so alarmingly ill that he had to be removed to the northern district of Almora. He was brought back to Bareli after the summer months. For the next summer, he was taken to Dehra Dun; and, kept there, till his release on 20 November 1936.
It is remarkable that despite his severe ill health, Roy could read, correspond and produce phenomenal volume of writing running over over 3000 lined foolscap-size pages, on such subjects as history, sociology, politics and philosophy etc.
The harsh prison period of almost six years left a profound effect on Roy and on his thoughts. Nehru who had also gone through long years of imprisonment talked about his prison experience in terms of ‘sensitivity and continuous state of tension’. Roy too experienced ‘sensitivity’ of isolation in prison life, but none of the privileges that were accorded to Nehru and such others.
Roy suffered acute mental tension and intolerable physical strain.
Philip Spratt, a British Communist jailed in India for a total of about seven years (March 1929-October 34; and December 1934-June 1936) had a similar jail-experience as Roy. Spratt, after his release, wrote articles on jail-psychology and how a prolonged prison experience produces the effect of ‘psychological hothouse’, where there is an ‘overwhelming concentration of emotion upon itself’. Such a ‘hothouse’ , according to Spratt, encourages the latent elements of the thoughts , suppressed emotions and feelings surge up and drives the prisoner to ‘ intense introspection’. Spratt said that the most fundamental element that flourishes greatly, in such circumstances of forced prolonged periods of isolation, is the urge towards religion; and , the jail , in a way , turns into ‘a forcing house for religion’. Spratt who till then had been thoroughly ill-religious, felt the force of religious appeal.
Aurobindo Ghosh, who was an extremist in politics during his initial years in the prison, experienced mystical revelations that transformed into the Seer Sri Aurobindo. He chose spirituality and withdrew from all political activities.
[ Colin Wilson in his Frankenstein’s Castle (1980) tries to explain such phenomenon in terms of the interactions between the right and the left halves of the human brain:
A little introspection makes us aware that the left seems to be turned outward, towards the external world, while the right is turned inward, towards our inner-being. The business of the left is to ‘cope’ with everyday problems. The business of the right is to deal with our inner-states and feelings.
The rule seems to be that if we need support and help, we need to ask for it by turning towards that ‘other self’ in the right-brain. Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ Ode shows the process in action. The poet feels depressed and jaded, and reflects gloomily upon his decreasing capacity for poetic inspiration. But the actual process of turning these insights into words makes him aware that things are not quite as bad as he thought, and he ends by writing confidently about a returning feeling of strength and optimism.
The same process also explains why people who have suffered great personal loss or prolonged isolation , imprisonment often gain religious faith in exchange; the misery causes them to turn inward; the right responds with comfort and inspiration. The left-brain self becomes aware that it is not alone, and believes it has found God. Possibly it has; but it has certainly found its ‘silent partner’ who lives only a few centimetres away; and this, in its way, is just as great a discovery.]
Roy, in the isolation of the prison, might not have experienced the religious upsurge of Spratt or the mystical revelations of Sri Aurobindo. But, the prison –isolation definitely did bring about a marked change in Roy’s personality, his ways of thinking and his approach to politics and life in general. After the prison, Roy began to noticeably move away from orthodox Marxism towards the foundations of radical humanism. The first clear sign of his shift appeared in his article ‘Marxism is not dogma’ written soon after his release. It shows up the limitations of Marxism. His readings and his introspections in the prison led him to discover those developments in science, the practical problems of India and such other ancient societies; as also to the historical developments that Marx had not anticipated.
Roy, thereafter, felt the need to ‘revise certain fundamental conceptions of classical Materialism’. Roy, then wrote,’ the modern Marxist cannot follow the literally the line predicted by Marx… We cannot say that the developments here in India must necessarily follow the same line as Marx predicted for European developments’.
Roy came to regard Marxism as a philosophy that aims to bring about changes in the world, in its political and economic order; and, in its class –structure. After the prison, Roy somehow, lost his acute and intense urge in traditional politics; he turned into a political philosopher with a wide breadth of vision.
Roy was released from the Dehra Dun Jail on the morning of 20 November 1936, after imprisonment lasting for five years and six months. He was broken in health; but was still looking forward to an active political life. He was received at the Jail gate by handful of Congress leaders and members from Roy Group. Demonstrations, shouting etc were avoided because of Roy’s frail health.
From the Jail, Roy was taken to the residence of Khurshis Lal, Chairman of the Dehra Dun Municipality and a prominent Congress leader.
While at Khurshis Lal’s home, Roy received a message from Jawaharlal Nehru inviting him to attend the Provincial Political Conference at Bareli; and, thereafter to his house at Allahabad, for rest and recuperation. .
On the evening of 20 November 1936 (on the day of his release) Roy formally joined the Indian National Congress at Dehra Dun. While speaking to the local Press on that occasion, Roy said:
‘the Anglo-Indian Press might project my joining the Indian National Congress as evidence of the Congress going Red. No, the Congress is not going Red; the Communists as determined fighters for the freedom of India, on the other hand, are joining the ranks of Congress. I personally have also been persistently defending Congress, though I could not always agree with some details of its policy and found it necessary to express my disagreement in critical terms…..
I am determined to show to the people of India that Communists are not aliens elements within the body-politics of India, but are the sons of soil fighting as the vanguard of the army of national freedom under the banner of Indian National Congress, which is our common platform….
My message to the fellow-victims of imperialism is to rally in millions under the flag of the Indian National Congress as a determined army fighting for democratic freedom….. ”
The same evening, Roy left for Bareli to attend the political conference and to meet Jawaharlal Nehru.
We shall talk about Roy, as a member of the Indian National Congress, in the next part.
Sources and References
M N Roy by V B Karnik
M N Roy- a political Biography by Samreen Roy
Trial of M N Roy : http://issuu.com/rahuljain/docs/trial_of_mnroy
‘I accuse’ –suppressed statement of M N Roy
Manabendra Nath Roy (1887—1954) by Ramendra Nath
The impossible intimacies of M N Roy by Kris Manjapra.
Elites in south Asia- Roy and Radical Humanism by D G Dalton
Pictures are from Internet