A few days ago, the foundation stone of a new university was laid in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, dedicated to the memory of Raja Mahendra Pratap. The news created quite a buzz as the name of the Raja failed to ring a bell.
Pratap may have been only a minor royal but he played a stellar role in India’s freedom struggle, as a revolutionary leader and founder of India’s first Government-in-Exile. His relentless efforts in securing international support against the British presence in India and his attempts to establish a pan-Asian Province have been largely forgotten – until now.
Pratap was born on 1st December 1886 into a royal Jat family, which ruled the small principality of Mursan in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh. He attended the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College later renamed Aligarh Muslim University) and, while still a student, was drawn to Marxism and nationalism, which estranged him from his royal roots.
Pratap had his first brush with nationalism in 1906, a year after the Partition of Bengal. It had caused outrage and a wave of nationalism to sweep across the nation. Against the wishes of his father and his in-laws (the royal family of Jind, now in Haryana), Pratap attended the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta in 1906. It was from here that he declared himself a ‘Swadeshi’ and burnt all his foreign clothes, much to the dismay of his family and his royal in-laws, who wouldn’t part with their own!
Intent on spreading the spirit of nationalism through education, Pratap established the Prem Vishwavidyalaya, a technical institute, in his palace in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, in 1909.
Then, in 1913, Pratap volunteered to join his Aligarh classmates in the Balkan War (1912-13) as part of their medical mission. But when he arrived in Aligarh, his friends had already left. So he went to Dehradun (in present-day Uttarakhand), from where he began publishing the weekly newspaper, Nirbal Sewak.
During World War I (1914-1919), Pratap published a few pro-German articles as he was part of the movement to overthrow the British in India. He was promptly arrested. Eventually, he sailed to Geneva in 1914, where he worked on the frontlines with Indian and other revolutionaries, whose aim was to overthrow the colonial administration in India. The plan was to garner support from other countries in this mission.
Government-in-Exile: The Groundwork
Pratap joined the Berlin Committee as part of the Ghadar Movement founded by Indian revolutionaries in the United States and Europe. They intended to team up with the Germans and turn soldiers in Indian cantonments against the British and attack them on Indian soil.
– As part of the Hindu-German Conspiracy, Pratap and Virendranath Chattopadhyay, founder of the Berlin Committee, met Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, in 1915. They also met the exiled Egyptian Sultan, Abbas Hilmi, who supported their cause.
Next, Pratap and Chattopadhyay set off for Istanbul in Turkey and then for Kabul, where they were welcomed by the Emir of Afghanistan, Habibullah Khan. Now supported by Germany, Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan, the first Indian Government-in-Exile was established in Kabul on 1st December 1915. It was headed by Mahendra Pratap. Interestingly, it was also his 49th birthday.
Pratap and his Government-in-Exile suffered a massive setback when the US Government arrested a German agent and an Indian revolutionary, who leaked the revolutionaries’ plans. This resulted in massive trials, arrests, deportations and death sentences of Ghadarites in the US, India and in Afghanistan, where succumbing to pressure from Britain, the royal court withdrew its support.
The Russian Connection
Undaunted, Pratap established contact with the Bolsheviks. In the meantime, he forged a new friendship with the Afghans, when the Emir, Habibullah, was assassinated by his son Amanullah, and Afghanistan went to war with Britain. Afghanistan now had sovereignty over its foreign affairs.
Pratap even became an emissary for Afghanistan, to enlist support from foreign powers for the country. But when the Afghanis signed a peace treaty with the British in 1921, Pratap was alienated from the Afghans and he turned to Russia. It was here that he met and exchanged ideas with M N Roy, who would later become one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India.
– For the next few years, Pratap’s quest for Indian independence took him across Europe and Asia and, in 1925, he travelled to Japan, where he met Rash Behari Bose, an Indian revolutionary who was seeking refuge from the British in India.
Pratap landed at Chamdo in Eastern Tibet to enlist the support of the Dalai Lama from where he established contact with him. Although the spiritual leader praised Pratap’s mission, he didn’t allow him to proceed towards Lhasa.
Advocating A Pan-Asian Province
Disappointed, he returned to Osaka in 1926 and became part of the Second Pan-Asiatic Conference in Shanghai in 1927, along with Rash Behari Bose. An interview advocating for India’s liberation and unity within Asian nations in The Japan Advertiser, a premier Japanese newspaper, garnered huge support in the Far East.
Utilizing this opportunity, Pratap travelled extensively within China and Japan, where he formed multiple organizations such as the Asiatic Culture League, with the intention of creating a Pan-Asian Province that would have Far East Asian nations in its fold.
Pratap’s fight for India’s freedom made him both famous and notorious back home. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the British tried more than once to shut down his Prem Vishwavidyalaya. They failed and, instead, the institute became a meeting point for Congressmen and revolutionaries, who would arrive in disguise as professors to outsmart British spies!
Back in Tokyo, the 1930s was a massive success for Pratap. He established a school and founded many organizations that forged bonds between various Asian nations. Many Indo-Japanese organizations too were founded, which brought Pratap close to prominent Congress leader Anand Mohan Sahay, who later became part of the Indian National Army (INA) founded by Subhas Chandra Bose. Along with Rash Behari Bose, the trio became part of many societies, delivered lectures and conducted meetings that took the Indian freedom struggle to various Asian nations.
Pratap’s consistent and relentless efforts to create an international community to stand against colonialism drew the attention of the International Peace Bureau, an international peace federation that had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. In 1932, one of its members, Dr NA Nilsson, nominated Pratap for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Return To India
When World War II (1939-1945) broke out, Pratap’s vision of a pan-Asian union clashed with that of his great ally Japan. Although they shared the same goal, Japan advocated an armed struggle to achieve it. He alienated himself from Japan and distanced himself from Bose’s INA as well.
After Japan’s surrender in the war, in 1945, when the American troops captured Japan, Pratap was jailed in a Tokyo prison as a ‘Japanese ally’. He returned to India in early 1946, with the permission of the British government, who were getting ready to leave India ahead of Independence.
After Independence, in 1947, Pratap founded the Indian Freedom Fighters' Association, to bring to public attention the role played by Indian freedom fighters. Later, in 1957, he tossed his hat into politics and contested the second Lok Sabha elections. Pratap, an Independent candidate from Mathura constituency, famously won the election after defeating 33-year-old Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader and future Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Pratap, who served one term in the Lok Sabha, used his position as Member of Parliament to advocate for Panchayati Raj, a system of local self-government. He pursued this cause even after he retired from active politics. On 29th April 1979, Mahendra Pratap died at the age of 92.
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