He dedicated his life’s work to the people of India, especially the working classes and the peasants. Recognition never once crossed his mind. Yet, when history remembers such a person only as the ‘brother of Swami Vivekananda’, it is unfortunate, for Bhupendranath Datta’s life was also extraordinary. He was a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, an intellectual and a scholar of considerable accomplishment. Most of all, his heart was with the working classes and he worked tirelessly to get them due recognition.
Here’s a look at Bhupendranath’s life and contributions, the Bengal revolutionary movement, revolutionaries in exile, the beginnings of the Indian labour movement and communism, and Bhupendranath’s brother Vivekananda through his eyes.
The Early Years
Bhupendranath Datta was born in Calcutta on 4th September 1880. He was the youngest of seven siblings, the eldest of whom was Narendranath, who later became Swami Vivekananda.
The family lived in an old huge house at Simulia (later Simla) in North Calcutta, constructed more than a century before their time, along with many other relatives. Bhupendranath’s father, Biswanath Datta, was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court and was a man of liberal temperament, characteristic of the times when the educated classes in Bengal were embracing the new ideas being propagated by the Brahmo and other social reform movements. He was a polyglot; was interested in history and his library was choc-a-bloc with literary gems and scholarly works of history. Bhupendranath would later say that his father “was a liberal Indian with a syncretic mind. That is why his offspring became ‘radicals’ in ways of thinking”.
The women in the Datta family were well educated and Bhupendranath’s grandmother had written an unpublished novel in Bengali (its manuscript was lost during the family’s move to North and Central India), and his mother Bhubaneswari Devi too composed verses in Bengali. She had a fair knowledge of English and even tutored her children in English primers. She also narrated stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas to her children which she knew by heart.
Bhupendranath’s brother Narendranath, seventeen years elder to him, had an all-round personality. He learnt wrestling at an akhara (traditional gymnasium), studied classical music from the masters, could play a host of instruments with ease, and exuded an easy confidence that was often mistaken for arrogance. Narendranath had intellectual interests well beyond the curriculum and even corresponded with Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), the leading philosopher of the time. He was fascinated with Spencer’s ideas of ‘Evolutionism’, which held that societies, just like organisms, progress through changes similar to that of a living species, and hence transition from simple to complex forms. While in college, he translated Spencer’s On Education into Bengali.
Narendranath graduated from the General Assembly’s Institution (now Scottish Church College) in Calcutta, in 1883, and worked as an articled clerk to prepare for a career as an attorney, as desired by his father. There was also a plan that he would go to England for his law studies.
But two major developments changed things irrevocably for the Datta family. One was Narendranath’s visits to Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the saint and mystic who lived at the Dakshineswar Kali temple just north of the city that would subsequently change the course of his life; and the second was his father’s death in 1884. His mother’s rightful claims over the family home were dismissed by her husband’s extended family and she was forced to move with her children to her parents’ home.
Narendranath, the eldest of his siblings, tried to take care of the basic needs of his family for a couple of years after his father’s death, but his own inner calling, an outcome of being a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, eventually led him to sever his ties with his family and pursue a monastic life. Bhupendranath later remembered that “in this dark hour of life, our maternal grandmother proved to be our mainstay. We lived with her and she looked after us till 1903”.
When Bhupen was in his teen years, his eldest brother, now the renowned Swami Vivekananda, was creating quite a stir, first in the West and then in India. During his last years, Vivekananda often shared in private conversations with close friends and disciples, his wish to retire to a small cottage with his mother, grandmother and brothers. It was a great blow to the family when Vivekananda passed away in 1902 at the age of 39.
Bhupendranath’s second brother Mahendranath too was a fascinating person. He set off for London in 1896, when Vivekananda was there during his preaching mission in the West. He had an adventurous streak and soon disappeared into Europe and proceeded to North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. He travelled long distances on foot and with hardly any money. He also visited Baku in Azerbaijan, then the plains of the Tigris-Euphrates in Iran and Iraq, and headed for Karachi and Kashmir. He returned to Calcutta only after learning of Vivekananda’s death, after a gap of six years. Besides Vivekananda, the other two Datta brothers too remained bachelors.
In the Bengal Revolutionary Movement
Inspired primarily by Bankim and Vivekananda’s ideas to develop strong bodies and strong minds dedicated to the nation, a sort of movement took off of physical training and discipline. Many of them had the covert goal of revolutionary action against the foreign rule. There were a number of such small groups and loose networks operating not just in Calcutta and its suburbs, but also in far-flung towns and villages of Bengal. The most important of them was the Anushilan Samiti. The Samiti was founded by a Calcutta-based barrister, Pramatha Mitra, and had as its mentors persons like Sister Nivedita and Surendranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s nephew).
Bhupendranath later remarked that “it was a truism to say that there is a correlation between Swamiji’s appeals to the young countrymen and the intensity of revolutionary urge in the minds of succeeding generations. His works, along with the writings of Mazzini and Garibaldi, were the mainspring of inspiration to the youth of India. In every gymnasium of the revolutionary networks, his work Lectures From Colombo To Almora was read. The youths were profoundly inspired by his saying,‘One is nearer to God through football than through the Gita. We want men with strong biceps’,” he wrote in his book Swami Vivekananda – Patriot-Prophet.
In this context, Bhupendranath mentions an assertion made by Romain Rolland (French Nobel Laureate and biographer of Vivekananda) that “the Indian Nationalist Movement smouldered for a long time until Vivekananda’s breath blew the ashes into flame, and erupted violently three years after his death in 1905.”
This eruption was the Swadeshi Movement, which started as a reaction to the Partition of Bengal brought about by Lord Curzon, and Bhupendranath Datta was caught in its vortex.
Bhupendranath described the intellectual climate of the time, saying, “The Bengali translations of Mazzini and Garibaldi by Jogendra Vidyabhushan and Bankim’s Anandamath ignited the Bengali mind. The more advanced amongst us would study European political thought, socialism, and follow the efforts of the Russian revolutionaries.”
There were classes held by Sakharam Deuskar, the Maharashtrian scholar and revolutionary settled in Bengal, whose book in Bengali Desher Katha was popular among the revolutionary-minded people of the times. Deuskar used to teach the cadres, politics, economics and contemporary intellectual ideas.
Just around the year 1903, Bhupendra too got involved in the youth groups associated with the Anushilan Samiti. While the Samiti in Calcutta was running gymnasiums and social service programmes like night schools for the labour classes and helping in relief work when required, the more adventurous among the revolutionaries who wanted to directly attack the British machinery formed a sub-group called ‘Jugantar’. It was named after the journal they started publishing in Bengali in 1906.
Bhupendranath played a key role in editing and running the journal. The activities of the Jugantar Group had a considerable religious slant and it had become a custom to take an oath on the Hindu scriptures. Some members, however, felt this was a deterrent to non-Hindus who wanted to join the revolutionary fold. So, when he took the oath, Bhupendranath asked for scriptures from different religious traditions.
The Jugantar journal gave a clarion call to overthrow the oppressive colonial rule, saying: “The readers may think that they are weak and they lack the strength to fight the all-powerful English. The answer is, do not be afraid. Italy has wiped off the stain of slavery with blood. Is it too much to ask for a thousand young men of Bengal who are prepared to sacrifice their lives to free their motherland of stigma and slavery?”
The tone for a violent uprising was barely concealed: “Without bloodshed, the worship of the Goddess will not be accomplished. And what is the number of English officials in each district? With a firm resolve, you can bring the English Rule to an end in a single day.”
There were other journals like Bande Mataram (in English) edited first by Bipin Chandra Pal and later by Aurobindo, and Sandhya edited by Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, which too were doing their bit. When these journals did not heed the warning issued by the British administration, Bhupendranath was arrested on 5th July 1907 and charged with preaching sedition through inflammatory editorials and articles.
During his trial, he said, “I am solely responsible for all the articles in question. I have done what I have considered in good faith to be my duty to my country. I do not wish the prosecution to be put to trouble and expense of proving what I have no intention to deny. I do not wish to make any other statement or to take any further action in the trial.”
The court sentenced him to a year’s rigorous imprisonment on 24th July 1907. On the afternoon of the judgment, there was a public meeting at the iconic venue of College Square, where Bhupendranath’s heroism was praised.
While he was in prison, hundreds of women assembled at a meeting to honour Bhubaneswari Devi for being the mother of a son so brave and self-sacrificing. They presented her with an address printed on silk cloth placed on a silver tray. In her reply to this address, Bhubaneswari Devi said, “Bhupendranath’s work has just begun. I have dedicated him to the country’s cause.” A long poem eulogizing Bhupendranath’s heroic deeds was also read. Bhupendranath later joked with his mother, saying, “You didn’t receive much recognition for being Vivekananda’s mother. But for being my mother, you even got public recognition.”
Bhupendranath in the West
Within days of his release from prison in July 1908, Bhupendranath was sent to America through the efforts of Sister Nivedita, the Irish-born disciple of Vivekananda (who was already in the West then) and Sister Christine, a German-American disciple of Vivekananda who worked with Nivedita in Calcutta. They were worried that the severe backlash on the revolutionaries due to the ongoing Alipore Bomb Conspiracy Case, Bhupendranath could be arrested again, on any pretext.
They felt it was best for him to go to the West and continue his education which had suffered due to his involvement with the revolutionaries. Bhupendranath sailed incognito and arrived in New York a month later. In New York, his accommodation was arranged at India House, established by Myon H Phelps, an American lawyer and a well-known champion for the Indian cause. It was a chapter of the original India House set up in London by Shyamji Krishna Varma in 1905. Here, in New York, he came in contact with progressive thought-currents in American intellectual life.
For his post-graduate studies, Bhupendranath enrolled at Brown University. He was deeply impressed by Prof Lester F Ward, his professor of Sociology, whom he considered his intellectual mentor. He also became a member of the Bronx Park Socialist Club and attended lectures of American socialist leaders at the Rand School of Social Sciences in New York. He received his Master’s degree from Brown University in 1914. He remained indebted to these intellectuals, who expanded his intellectual horizons.
Towards the end of the first decade of the new century, Europe had started to act as a base for Indian revolutionaries. Madam Cama and later Shyamji Krishna Varma were operating from Europe. Their presence attracted many younger revolutionaries too. With World War I in the offing, these Indians began to think of ways to leverage the situation for India’s freedom.
Germany was becoming the epicentre and the German dispensation wanted to build links with Indian revolutionaries, to dent Britain’s resources and military might. The Kaiser himself had sanctioned this. The German Office came in contact with Indian revolutionaries in Europe like Virendranath Chattopadhyay, Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya and Chempakaraman Pillai. From the German side, primary liaisoning was done by Max von Oppenheim. Virendranath Chattopadhyay, fondly called ‘Chatto’, played a very prominent role in these developments in Berlin.
Chatto belonged to a prominent Hyderabad-based family – his father Aghorenath Chattopadhay was a mathematician, the first Indian D.Sc. (from Zurich), and the Founder-Principal of the Nizam College in Hyderabad. Chatto had illustrious siblings who became famous later – sister Sarojini (Naidu), the first Indian woman to become Congress President and an acclaimed poetess in English, and a versatile younger brother Harindranath – poet, playwright, songwriter-composer He arrived in London in 1902 and after making a stab at the Imperial Civil Service, enrolled for a law degree. He stayed at India House, founded by Shyamji Krishna Varma. India House was ostensibly a boarders’ hostel for Indian students but in reality, it acted as the epicentre of revolutionary indoctrination and training in London. It had as its boarders people like VD Savarkar, VVS Aiyer, MPT Acharya and Madanlal Dhingra, who created huge waves after assassinating WH Curzon Wylie, the ADC to the Secretary of State, which eventually led to his hanging in London and the closure of India House in 1910.
Chatto moved to Paris and associated with Madam Cama, London and the closure of the India House). Chatto moved out to Paris and associated with Madam Cama, writing for revolutionary journals ‘Bande Mataram’ (which derived its name from the Pal-Aurobindo Calcutta journal after the latter’s closure) and ‘Talwar’ (originally called ‘Madan’s Talwar’ in memory of Dhingra). Just before World War I broke out, Chatto left Paris for Germany, seemingly to enroll for a doctoral programme but really to pursue a different line of revolutionary action. He along with Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya, a Chemistry researcher working in a German University, met the German Foreign Office officials that led to the formation of an organization called ‘Deutscher Verein der FreundeIndien (The Society of Friends of India). Later, the Germans were dropped from the Society and it transformed into a thoroughly Indian forum, renamed the ‘Indian Independence League’, popularly called the ‘Berlin Committee’.
Bhupendranath, then in America, had just enrolled for a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. But fast-changing geopolitical developments and the impending World War situation gripped his mind. He met the German Consul in New York, and offered to raise a volunteer corps among Indians abroad to fight and serve on the German side against the British in the War. He also contacted the Ghadar Party, which mostly had Punjabi immigrants in the United States and Canada organizing themselves both for the redressal of their local woes as well as for the larger goal of Indian independence. It had gained momentum under the leadership of Lala Hardayal and published its mouthpieces Ghadar (meaning ‘Mutiny’) in Urdu, Gurumukhi, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and sporadically in English and Gorkhali. Bhupendranath discussed with them the possibility of fighting the British on the side of the Germany Army but his proposals did not gain much traction with the Ghadarites.
The major tasks envisaged by the Berlin Committee included propaganda among the Indian prisoners of war in Germany, inciting rebellion in the British Indian Troops in Egypt and the Arab region, and last but not least, to send arms and funds to the revolution in India. The Committee also published books and pamphlets to educate the intellectual opinion in Europe and elsewhere with regard to British Rule in India.
The Committee sent emissaries to contact the Ghadarites in America. Following this, Lala Hardayal, Taraknath Das, Birendranath Dasgupta, Jitendranath Lahiri and some others came to Berlin. With this development Bhupendranath too arrived in Berlin, becoming a full-timer in the Berlin Committee, and in due course officiating as its Secretary.
The efforts of the Berlin Committee and the international situation led to a much greater coordination among the scattered revolutionary groups in India, with Jatindranath in Bengal, and Sachindranath Sanyal and Rashbehari Bose in North India emerging as the key leaders. They also aimed at bringing about a rebellion among Indians in the British Indian Army, coordinating plots to ship arms from Germany into India, and continuing to strengthen and widen the revolutionary network across the length and breadth of India. Thousands of Ghadarites from North America returned to India in anticipation of a major campaign.
As the Indian revolutionary movement gained further traction, there was a plan of an uprising in February 1915, across military cantonments throughout British India and other locations like Singapore. However, the plan failed thanks to informers who leaked details. The only place where it did trigger was Singapore and many Indian soldiers were martyred. Jatindranath Mukherjee was shot at on the banks of the river Budhabalanga near Balasore, where he and his associates were waiting to receive an arms consignment. Many other revolutionaries from different parts of India in this saga that came to be known as the ‘Hindu-German Conspiracy’ were caught and hanged.
The Berlin Committee had sent missions to the Suez Canal area, Baghdad, Persia and Afghanistan. A provisional Indian Government in Exile was established in Kabul on 1st December 1915 with representatives of the Berlin Committee and under the leadership of Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh and Moulana Barkatullah. They too aimed at organizing an uprising with armed assistance from the Germans and Afghans but these plans did not go through. Both these gentlemen had very interesting lives. Mahendra Pratap, described by Nehru in his autobiography as ‘a Don Quixote who strayed into the twentieth century’, became a Member of Parliament four decades later (in 1957) from Mathura, defeating a young candidate from Jan Sangh, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Barkatullah lived as an international vagabond – born in Bhopal, he had lived in England, been a Professor in Tokyo, spent many years in Europe, and died in San Francisco.
With the defeat of Germany in the War, the Berlin Committee was formally dissolved. The Kaiser’s rule had been brought down in Germany, which plunged into turbulence that witnessed the assassination of Communist leaders like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Around the middle of 1917, Bhupendranath and Chatto relocated to Stockholm, Sweden, as it was a neutral place. They also established contacts with the Russian Bolsheviks.
The new dispensation in Germany was not interested in the Indian question. But some very exciting developments placed him in the thick of the international communist movement, which gave him an insider’s view of the same.
In the International Communist Movement
The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia and the formation of the Soviet Union kindled hope in Bhupendranath that the socialists and communists could extend their support to Indian independence. At a conference organized by the Soviet communists in Stockholm, which Bhupendranath and Chatto attended along with many other revolutionaries in exile, it was decided that nationalists should work for the country’s independence and form their own organization, while those of a Marxist persuasion should form another entity with the same goal.
Meanwhile, M N Roy (Narendranath Bhattacharya), earlier an activist with Bagha Jatin’s group and who had since lived in the US and Mexico (he helped found the Communist Party in Mexico), became closely involved in Cominternor Communist International, a Soviet-based association of communist parties that sought to control the international communist movement. Roy subsequently moved to Tashkent, and upon submitting a thesis for Indian Communism, took recognition of his group consisting of his wife Evelyn Trent, Abani Mukherjee and Shaukat Usmani, as the émigré Communist Party of India.
In early 1921, Bhupendranath went to Moscow as a member of the delegation of Indian revolutionaries at the invitation of Soviet leaders. Disagreeing with Roy’s thesis, both Bhupendranath and Chatto submitted their respective thesis to Comintern officials. Bhupendranath significantly disagreed with Roy as the latter did not wish to work with nationalists, dismissing them as bourgeois and protecting their own class interests. On the other hand, Bhupendranath knew that to build and sustain a mass movement in India, one could not turn away from the nationalists.
He had been observing with keen interest the Non-Cooperation Movement, then in full swing in India, and could not deny that under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, the national movement had expanded its base, taking the masses into its fold. In fact, in 1920, Bhupendranath had sent a memorandum to the Nagpur session of the Indian National Congress, where he urged Congress workers to organize the peasants and workers and bring them into the nationalist movement.
This shows that even while being influenced by Marxist ideas, Bhupendranath never underestimated the potency of the freedom movement under Gandhi and that of the National Congress as a mass platform. His primary aim was to bring the interests of the poor masses into the centre stage of the national movement.
Bhupendranath sent his thesis to Lenin, who within a few days, responded to him in a letter dated 26th August 1921 (The letter appears in Volume 45 of The Complete Works of V.I. Lenin). He advised the Indian revolutionaries to collect facts about peasants and work among them. Lenin drew their attention to his own thesis on the colonized countries and advised to proceed on the same lines. Elsewhere, Lenin had also criticized M N Roy for his failure to understand and appreciate the role of the bourgeois in the Indian freedom movement. However, he advised the Indian revolutionaries to work among the peasants and preach class struggle.
Chatto stayed back and remained involved in the Comintern for many years before he met his unfortunate end – he was executed at Stalin’s orders in the ‘Great Purge’ of 1937. Meanwhile, Roys’s group started propaganda work in India for which the Soviet government provided the resources. Roy later returned to India and in the evening of his life he disavowed communism and worked on his own political theory called ‘Radical Humanism’.
Armed with the new exposure that he had received as a result of his brush with Communist International, Bhupendranath began disseminating his ideas in some Indian journals. Having obtained his PhD, he now felt it was time to return to India and work among the toiling masses. He was convinced that the path to liberation of the people was the path for the liberation of India. The consciousness of the masses would have to be aroused.
Back in India
After more than 16 years in exile, Bhupendranath returned to India in 1924 and immediately started to form peasant’s and workers’ organizations. He did not become a member of the Communist Party but acted as a bridge between the Communists and the Indian National Congress. He devoted his efforts to strengthening the peasants’ and workers’ interest groups in the Indian National Congress, and imparting a socialist focus to the nationalist movement. He was also elected to the All India Congress Committee in 1929.
Bhupendranath travelled widely to different parts of undivided Bengal and addressed meetings and conferences of youth, peasants and workers. When not travelling, he held an open house in his receiving room at the family home – 3 Gourmohan Mukherjee Lane – now a historical monument and museum called ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Birth Place and Ancestral House’. In an adjacent room, Mahendranath held a similar open court, where he narrated his experiences to his admirers who often recorded them to publish later as books.
In addition to the associates in his social and political work, Bhupendranath many came to seek his guidance, mostly youths and students. He also took classes and conducted study circles, where he taught socialist theory based on Marxist texts. He discussed Indian culture and history, and taught his ‘students’ to apply Marxist tools of analysis in Indian soil.
He also asked them to be respectful of the research of non-Marxists scholars and not make the mistake of dismissing that as ‘bourgeois scholarship’. He would go to any lengths to help and teach those whom he thought could become workers for the cause of the disenfranchised masses. He was, however, not inclined to spend much of his time with those who wanted to pursue dry scholarship merely to advance their careers. Everyone was charmed by his deeply congenial and empathetic behaviour. Even those who did not agree with his socio-political views deeply respected him.
Many young men who were inspired by him to work for the poor and marginalized later became tall Communist leaders.
From the late 1920s, Bhupendranath had occasions to work with Nehru, who after his visit to Europe had taken a marked interest in scientific socialism. Nehru was then involving himself more vigorously in the peasants’ and workers’ cause. In the Socialist Youth Congress held in Calcutta in 1927, of which Bhupendranath was a key organizer, Nehru was the President.
In his later reflections, Bhupendranath articulated how the early phase of the revolutionary movement India (1901-1917) lacked contact with the masses. He also highlighted the potential revolutionary capabilities of “the peasant” and cited the peasant uprising against the zamindars in Pabna in East Bengal, which had led to the enactment of the Bengal Tenancy Act, 1885. He thought the peasants’ power had not been harnessed during this early phase of the revolutionary movement.
Once back in India, Bhupendranath made a major contribution to decluttering the socialist movement from the romantic mazes of the early revolutionary period, of which he himself was a key actor. It was a considerable ground that he was covering from Mazzini to Marx.
Imparting Socialist Focus to Mainstream Politics
The years 1927-28 were marked with labour unrest in places like the Bombay textile mills, railways, Jamshedpur and Bengal jute mills. This led to repression by the British Government aimed at attacking the organized labour movement and a large number of arrests of leaders of the budding communist and labour movement were made.
This episode and the trial that followed for more than four years came to be known as the ‘Meerut Trial’. Following these arrests, Bhupendranath sent a personal appeal to Nehru, who was the General Secretary of the Congress Working Committee, requesting the Congress to organize legal help for those arrested. Bhupendranath helped in the defence of the under trials through the Meerut Defence Fund specially created for this purpose.
He supported the Civil Disobedience Movement and participated in the Salt Law violations and other mass mobilizations that had erupted throughout India. He was also arrested during this period. Few know the contribution made by Bhupendranath to Karachi Congress of 1931, which was famous for its Resolution on Fundamental Rights. He and his associates had prepared a draft and given it to Nehru. It was a key input draft, also shown and commented upon by Gandhi, leading to the final Resolution passed in that session. The final resolution had some key points which were submitted by Bhupendranath group.
In Workers’ Forums and Trade Unions
Bhupendranath presided over the Annual Conferences of the Bengal Provincial Kisan (Krishak) Sabha for four consecutive years, from 1937 to 1940. He also tried to help young activists working for the poor masses whenever they got into trouble. He stood as surety in many cases when activists were rounded up in strikes or peasants’ and workers’ campaigns.
Bhupendranath was one of the founders of the Calcutta Tramway Workers’ Union in 1927 and acted as its President for many years. He was also President of the Carter’s Union and was always interested in safeguarding the interest of poor carters and hawkers including street-side vendors. In the famous railway strike of the British-owned Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) at Kharagpur in 1927, under the leadership of V V Giri (who four decades later became President of India), Bhupendranath personally camped in Kharagpur and helped lift the morale of the workers. He also served as one of the Vice-Presidents of the All India Trade Union Congress for two successive years in the late ’20s, with Nehru as the President in the first year and Subhas Chandra Bose in the second.
It was in the 1930s that the May Day (International Labour Day) meetings and processions began to become a regular calendar event in Bengal and, to a lesser extent, outside too. Bhupendranath was always a speaker at these events and often presided over the public meetings.
In the terrible Bengal famine of 1943, Bhupendranath tried his best to mobilize relief workers to collect aid and run community kitchens, and distribute essential provisions and other items of immediate relief. He strongly opposed the Communist Party’s policy of opposing the ‘Quit India Movement’, which came about after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. Under the advisory from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Comintern, the Party changed its perspective and position with regard to the war, from the earlier position of maintaining equidistance in the war between fascists and imperialists, to the new position of viewing it as the People’s War.
Later he was also in complete disagreement with the stand of some sections in the party, who called the independence movement a sham with their slogan ‘Ye Azadi Jhoothi Hai’. He did consider the government under Nehru as the national government and wanted everyone to work together towards the betterment of the poorest and disenfranchised in free India. As often happens with reconcilers, Bhupendranath was often viewed by Congressmen as an unbending leftist and by orthodox communists as a soft centrist.
Bhupendranath authored a large number of books and academic papers. We get significant details about the history of the Indian revolutionary movement, particularly the activities of the revolutionaries during the Swadeshi Movement and the Berlin Committee through two of his works in Bengali – Bharater Dwitiya Swadhinata Sangram (‘The Second Freedom Struggle of India) and Aprakashito Rajnitik Itihas (‘Unpublished Political History’). These books have been an important resource for later scholars. He also published prolifically on Indian society, history, arts and culture from a Marxist perspective.
Bhupendranath wrote his memoirs of his American sojourn and titled it Amar Americar Abhijnata (‘My Experience of America’). He translated into Bengali Fredrich Engels’s The Socialism: Utopian And Scientific’, and published academic papers in German in journals like the German Encyclopaedia of Science and Anthropos. He wrote regularly for the pioneering Anthropology journal in India Man In India.
Among the virtual library of books, papers, essays and scholarly articles he published, there is one that will always be special. It is Bhupendranath’s study of Vivekananda and is titled Swami Vivekananda, Patriot-Prophet.
Sadly, in latter-day academic circles, the scholarship of Bhupendranath has not received due recognition. He was a pioneering scholar who studied Indian society and culture using Marxist framework of analysis well before illustrious scholars like D D Kosambi arrived on the scene. Similarly, his work on caste was not insignificant and he had presented ideas of fluidity of caste dynamic much before the formidable scholarship of M N Srinivas in the field.
Views on Swami Vivekananda
Bhupendranath’s comprehensive work on his illustrious brother was published in 1953, more than five decades after the latter’s death. It is a thorough study of the historical and social forces that led to the making of the Vivekananda phenomenon and the potency of his ideas.
What fascinated Bhupendranath most and what he thought had been woefully neglected even by Vivekananda’s followers was the latter’s radical egalitarianism. Vivekananda had been more direct than anyone else, in highlighting the exploitation of the toiling classes of India. He held them in genuine admiration for their innate strength to suffer and survive. “Ye ever-trampled labouring masses of India! I bow to you,” Vivekananda had said.
Vivekananda knew the time was coming when with all their might the working classes would stand together and shake the world: “These common people have suffered oppression for thousands of years — suffered it without murmur, and as a result have got wonderful fortitude. They have suffered eternal misery, which has given them unflinching vitality. Living on a handful of grain, they can convulse the world; give them only half a piece of bread, and the whole world will not be big enough to contain their energy.”
According to Bhupendranath, Vivekananda was one of the pioneers in world history in envisaging a civilization with the working classes at the centre. Vivekananda had even prophesied that it will be Russia and China where the uprising of the working classes will happen.
“The nation must ponder about the program of Swami Vivekananda in the perspective of an independent India, and work out its future advancement,” Bhupen wrote in his study of Vivekananda.
Bhupendranath and his elder brother Mahendranath, who was 11 years older than he was, lived in their ancestral home along with a few tenant families. Their meals too generally came from the tenants. Bhupendranath had turned down the freedom fighter pension offered by the government. With the same virtues of austerity, service-mindedness and sacrifice that were common to the three brothers, he too never craved creature comforts or gave in to the lure of recognition, much less any position of power or prestige.
In times of distress like illness, well-wishers of the brothers extended their help. Bhupendranath, the youngest of the Datta brothers of Simulia, passed away in 1961, at the age of 81. Much like Vivekananda, he too in his humble way, had been an interpreter and a reconciler, and did not take easy intellectual positions owing to preset ideological persuasions. Like his eldest brother, he too had a genuine pride for whatever was historically great in Indian civilization but that did not make him ignore what he thought were its lapses.
And, of course, like Vivekananda, Bhupendranath kept the toiling masses at the centre of his imagination, and hoped to see a time when they got a better deal. A patriot he surely was, but his patriotism, which was always of the probing kind, was firmly centred on the people.
Vinayak Lohani is the founder of Parivaar (parivaar.org), a humanitarian institution based in West Bengal, and seeks inspiration in the spiritual and humanistic ideals of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.Anushilan SamitiBhupendranath DattaIndia HouseSri AurobindoSwami Vivekananda
What did an industrial town look like 5,000 years ago? The answer can be found in Chanhudaro, whose people toiled hard to make exquisite items that were exported as far afield as Mesopotamia. Catch the exciting story of a small Harappan city with a big story
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