By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Where at the end of the previous part we detailed the arrest of Tan Malaka a former teacher and founder of Struggle Union and Murba Party colonial governments did not always agree on who were the most dangerous persons or how far they would bend their rule of law to assuage their allies' fears. The arrest tested this on 6 June 1931 in Hong Kong of a ‘Sung Man Cho.’ The man stayed in a small apartment on Nathan Road in Kowloon, a popular haunt for local business travelers, leased under the name T. V. Wong, and traveling on a Chinese republican passport. A ‘niece accompanied him,’ ‘Li Sam’, who was arrested and detained with him. The press soon reported what the police well knew: that Sung was Nguyen Ai Quoc. An elaborated pantomime unfolded. Under questioning, Sung denied his true identity and claimed instead to be a Chinese businessman from Guangdong. The arresting officers of Joseph Ducroux from Singapore, and members of the Sûreté from Saigon, traveled to Hong Kong to hold a secret conclave. Swayed by the French government's argument that if Quoc were at liberty, he would be a threat to all European possessions in Asia, the colonial secretary in London agreed that he should be deported to French Indochina. At this time, the Yen Bai Mutiny leaders' executions and summary killings of Nghe Tinh rebels were still underway. However, a Vietnamese comrade in Hong Kong got word to a sympathetic English lawyer, Frank Loseby, who took on the case. The funds forwarded for the defense by International Red Aid and the League Against Imperialism were a rare public demonstration of the reach of the Comintern. With consummate artistry, Quoc seized the opportunity of a banishment inquiry hearing to make the charge, in calm and fluent English, that he had been interrogated by the French Sûreté in a British prison. The circulation of the old surveillance photographs from his Parisian days had alerted him to their presence in the British colony. Loseby then made an application for a writ of habeas corpus.1

The legal position of the Hong Kong government was weak. There were no legal grounds for Nguyen Ai Quoc’s arrest, nor his irregular extradition for a non-extraditable offense. The Hong Kong government would have been happy to allow the French to pick him up as he tried to leave Hong Kong. But Quoc claimed the right of refuge as a political offender and demanded to be deported to a place of his own choosing. During the hearing, which began on 31 July 1931, much was made of Quoc’s arrest and interrogation irregularity. Still, ultimately, in mid-September, the court dismissed the application and upheld a deportation order. Loseby was granted permission to appeal to the Privy Council in London. Throughout the case, there was a creative ambiguity as to his identity. No one believed that ‘Sung Man Cho’ was who he said he was. Like Tan Malaka in Manila, he deliberately provoked and confused the court with contrary claims regarding his identity as a Chinese businessman and as a Vietnamese patriot. In July 1932, the British government's counsel, the socialist Stafford Cripps, advised his clients to settle the case before it reached open court. It was, Cripps argued, better to let Sung Man Cho, upon whom the French had no legitimate claim, go on his way than face an incendiary case involving the prisoner of conscience Nguyen Ai Quoc. Under the terms of the deal, Quoc was allowed to leave on his own terms. The problem remained as to where he might go. There seemed to be nowhere that was willing to take him, and Quoc trusted no one. He announced that he would travel to England but only got as far as Singapore and was turned back to Hong Kong. Then it was reported in the Daily Worker and elsewhere that Quoc had died. He had succumbed in the British prison hospital to tuberculosis that had afflicted him for so long. Meanwhile, a man in traditional scholar’s dress, who had been lodging at the Chinese YMCA in Kowloon, boarded a ship for Shantou. This was the night of 25 January 1933, lunar New Year’s Eve, a time for family and fireworks, and no one noticed he had left, nor the connivance of British officials in his departure. 

Before his departure, Nguyen Ai Quoc spent eighteen months in prison on Hong Kong Island and in hospital. By his own admission, he was well treated. But, on his arrest, his lodgings and his possessions were seized and photographed. They passed to the Sûreté, and into their extensive archive of Quoc, itemized down to every fragment in his notebooks: jottings for articles, coded lists of contacts, lists of names, of the sailors mostly, who were the real connecting threads of the vast conspiracy. For all the talk of Russian gold's profligate spending, Quoc recorded his expenses in meticulous detail. There was evidence of intense subterranean industry; his typewriter was photographed as found in mid-sentence of an article on ‘Indochina May First biggest in the world.2 The exhibits were a tableau of the solitary life of the underground. At this point, Quoc had been traveling almost constantly for twenty-three years, and of all the ports of call on the way, he had stayed longest in Hong Kong. He was almost entirely cut off from his home region. His father had recently died; his brother and sister had been released from French custody but were closely watched, and his contact with them by letter was very sporadic. It was said that the wife he left behind in Canton came to Hong Kong to see him. He had written to her sometime earlier, with formal affection. Besides the ‘niece’ arrested with him, there was another female companion in Hong Kong, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. She played a major role in party communications and was arrested before him and extradited to China. Of the ‘niece,’ little was said publicly at the time. She was Ly Ung Thuan, the wife of a Vietnamese comrade, also an active member of the organization.3 She claimed Chinese nationality and was quietly allowed to depart. Minh Khai and Ly Ung Thuan were at once further evidence of the relative invisibility and ubiquity and tenacity of women revolutionaries in Asia's struggle.

A few weeks after the arrests in Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, on 21 July 1931, the police in Bombay raided a flat in Wylie Street. It had been staked out by plain-clothes men sleeping on the street for some time—their quarry, a ‘Dr. Mahmud had eluded them for weeks, and there had been several failed attempts to seize him. In truth, they had been searching for the man – whether under the names of ‘Reverend Martin,’ Mr. White or M. N. Roy – on and off for over twenty years. 

For Roy, the impotence of exile had become too much. Upon his return to Moscow from China in 1927, he had fallen from favor. Stalin’s displeasure was not yet fatal, but he was now in full control: Trotsky was in exile, and Borodin was in the wilderness. In early 1928, with Louise Geissler and Russian friends' help, Roy crossed the Soviet border, in secret, at night. He returned to Berlin, the city where he had been happiest. ‘Had I been in the least, even indirectly, guilty of any treacherous act,’ he wrote, ‘I would not leave Moscow with my head on my shoulders.’4 Nevertheless, he immediately set to defending himself, principally in a book, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China, which ran to 689 pages when it eventually saw publication.5 Louise Geissler faded from his life, though not from Indian affairs: she acted as the companion for the wife of Jawaharlal Nehru, Kamala when she sought medical treatment in Switzerland, and their daughter Indira.6 

In Berlin, Roy began a relationship with Ellen Gottschalk, the daughter of a US diplomat of German origin. She was born in Paris in 1904, grew up mostly in Cologne, and on leaving home at a young age became active in the communist movement, and later with the German opposition and Roy’s circle in Berlin, where they met in 1928.7 During this period Roy’s reputation came under constant attack. In his absence from Moscow, delegates from India denounced him at the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern in 1929 as a person completely unknown in India’. For his advocacy for the united front, he was declared a ‘rightist opportunist’; the following year, he was expelled from the Comintern and denounced as a renegade.8 In Berlin, he lived with other outcasts, including his old friend August Thalheimer. In mid-November 1930, against the advice of all his friends and after an idyllic holiday with Ellen in Merano, Italy, he left for India. He traveled as a Muslim, Dr. Mahmud, through Istanbul, then Iran, arriving in Karachi on 11 December. For once, he was about two months ahead of the police. 

He returned to a charged political atmosphere. In March 1930, Congress launched new civil disobedience; the second wave of terrorism continued in Bengal and Punjab and reopened the question of how the Raj should be resisted force. Gandhi’s spiritually inspired, village-based self-sufficiency vied with a vision of an industrial future favored by Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and the Congress socialists. Roy was determined to shape these debates. Initially, the circles of young radicals he met in Bombay and elsewhere did not know who he was, but the British police who tracked him were obvious that his presence was a catalyst to a growing band of supporters. However, a brief visit to the United Provinces brought home to Roy the limits to what he could achieve without an organization and unable publicly to reveal his identity. In March 1931, he met secretly with Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose at the Congress convention in Karachi to encourage them to draw up a minimum social and economic program. But the attacks on him in Moscow soon followed him to India and helped speed his capture.9 The underground was already on trial, at a fresh conspiracy case at Meerut begun in March 1929. This was the product of months of harassment and surveillance – a high-stakes ‘cat and mouse game’ through the streets of Calcutta and Bombay – involving not only the Indian leadership – the recidivist S. A. Dange, Shaukat Usmani and Muzaffar Ahmad and others – but also British activists who had arrived to assist them in Roy’s absence.10 In a strange repertory of oppression, the policeman who had mastered the hunt for ‘Fat Babu’ and Roy from 1912, David Petrie, again played a key role. Roy was not brought before the court in Meerut, although he was constantly present in evidence exhibits.11 He was thrown into the district jail in Kanpur in a resumption of the conspiracy trial there, at which he had been listed as ‘absconded’ some seven years earlier. 

The documents captured in the June raids in Shanghai carried within them fragmentary details of the Comintern’s fresh mission to India, by way of China's revolutionary road to Burma that Roy, as ‘Revd Martin’, had tried to open in 1916. This time they featured an agent codenamed ‘Thomas.’12 Tan Malaka, too, had tired of his isolation near Xiamen and had drifted up to Shanghai. After over four years of estrangement, as ‘Thomas,’ he was drawn back into the orbit of the Comintern, or at least the fringes of it. His movements in this period left few traces. By his own account, Shanghai heralded a reawakening. As was his habit, he gravitated to the city's fringes, the settlements of the new arrivals, places of constant transit, where he lived as a Filipino. Tan Malaka saw a city in transition, torn apart by frequent violence, ever more defined by gangsterism, rackets, and the international politics of exclusion. But, in the midst of the poverty and turbulence of everyday life, he was inspired by the solidarities he found, which reaffirmed his faith in a new Asia.13 But, when Alimin finally caught up with him in a room in Shanghai’s Zhabei district, he found that Tan Malaka’s health had collapsed. A substantial sum of money was made available for his treatment. Both Alimin and the Comintern, it seems, were unaware of Tan Malaka’s new party, PARI, and his heresy in the intervening years.14 But by this time, Shanghai was no longer a refuge: on 28 January 1932, the city was engulfed by war. Tan Malaka was witness to the Japanese incursion that marked a new phase of imperial aggression, and he lost what little he owned. 

On the run once again, Tan Malaka traveled to Hong Kong. In October 1932, he was grabbed one night in the street close to his hotel in Kowloon. The police of six nations had a claim on him. Officers traveled from Singapore to interview him and to tell him of his close friends they had arrested there. His case followed a similar pattern to that of Nguyen Ai Quoc, but initially in secret. Failing to contact Quoc’s lawyer, Frank Loseby, Tan Malaka managed to get in touch with the radical Independent Labour Party leader, James Maxton, who on 14 March 1933, somewhat belatedly, asked in the House of Commons about his whereabouts.15 Sympathizers in the Netherlands, without news of their former parliamentary candidate for four years, took up a campaign against his extradition to the Indies. But by this time, Tan Malaka was long gone. As with Quoc, the local authorities had no grounds on which to hold him, and in the end, they had little choice but to let him go. Both men had argued ‘that there was no safer place for them the world over than just where they were, in the Gaol in Hong Kong.’ Only the ‘loosely guarded’ door to China remained open to them.16 In February 1933, Tan Malaka outlined his case to Madame Sun Yat-sen and her China League for Civil Rights. Thrice imprisoned by three colonial regimes, under the ‘secret agreement’ between them, he now stood on a precipice: 

It was as if I was facing a bridge of hair, over which the Moslem has to pass in the day of judgment, to reach the end, the heaven where the houris, the maiden[s] are dwelling with big, round eyes as of doves … Beneath the inferno I stand in the British jail. At the end of the hair, the bridge was Shanghai, not with the houris' big dove-like eyes, but with the Settlement police's eagle-like eyes. The end might be worse than the British jail. Again I must stop. The way or ways of my escape has to remain in the open.17

The letter was addressed from South America, but it was posted from Manila and delivered not to Madame Sun in Shanghai but straight into the Dutch consul's hands. Tan Malaka was lying low once again, very ill, in rural Fujian province, with a family with connections to the Philippines – his final, fragile link to the world abroad.18 The revolution was now a waiting game.



Had Tan Malaka fallen into the Dutch's hands, his likely destination, along with 1,308 of over 4,500 people sentenced for their part in the uprisings in the Netherlands Indies and many of their families, was a forest clearing 280 miles upstream on the Digoel River in West Guinea. This region was seen by some Europeans as the final frontier of empire: a new Transvaal, a ‘New Australia-New America’ of future white settlement. But for Asians, it marked the uttermost boundary of the Indies, the extremity of Asia, and, for many who were sent there, the end of the world itself.19

The first internees began to arrive in early 1927. Among them was Aliarcham, who had briefly led the PKI on its path to revolt. He was one of the first to die there. Boven Digoel was a harsh, malarial environment. Beyond the camp's cleared area lived forest peoples who had no, or very little, contact with other human beings. Tales of their savagery were embellished to keep the new arrivals confined to camp. In practice, some of the forest peoples came to the camp to work and observe the ethnographers who formed part of the Dutch garrison. But for most settlers, the trees held only terror. Most were townsmen and townswomen from regions of Java where the forests had long disappeared. Very few of those who tried to flee found their way overland to the nearest border: the Australian-administered territories of Papua and New Guinea. Those who did were returned promptly into Dutch custody.

Boven Digoel was not, strictly speaking, a prison. The only fences were those built around the small garrison. The governor-general, Jonker de Graeff, opposed capital punishment and had angered expatriate opinion by refusing to confirm death sentences. To him, the camp was an expression of mercy: a far outpost of ethical imperialism, with better street lighting and medical facilities than many settlements of Java itself. The government’s stated intention was that those sent there would be allowed to live reasonably freely. Or, as Mas Marco Kartodikromo paraphrased it when he heard of it from his prison cell in Java: ‘Look at this, Indonesian people! These Communists in Boven Digoel cannot organize their own community, and their situation is one of chaos.’20 To Mohammad Hatta, now returned from his sojourn overseas, ‘the ethical-coax-policy of Governor-General de Graeff is, in essence, ethical force’:

His ‘ethics’ conveys that he has purposely selected one of the unhealthiest spots in the archipelago, where malaria and cholera are prevalent, as a concentration camp for his political adversaries, who, notwithstanding the Indian penal provisions that were worded as pliably as possible, could not be prosecuted under the law.21

There was constant, one-way traffic into the camp. It became an Indies in miniature, as the first internees from Java were joined by Sumatrans and others, including supporters of Tan Malaka’s PARI organization, trawled in from across Asia. Dutch officials distinguished between the ‘recalcitrant,’ the ‘half-hearted’ and the ‘well-meaning.’ But, these categories ran into each other in practice. More significant was the separation between the main settlement, Tanah Merah, named after its infertile ‘red earth,’ and the Tanah Tinggi, the ‘higher land,’ which was a place of punishment, of banishment beyond banishment. Later, non-Communists, Islamists, and ‘intellectuals’ were sent to Boven Digoel. In 1935, Hatta himself was to be banished there.

Boven Digoel was termed an ‘isolation colony’ to keep the contagion of political belief at bay. But it was not entirely adrift from the world. It was serviced by Chinese river traders, a small administration with its co-opted officials, and many spies. When Mas Marco Kartodikromo arrived in June 1927, he described the settlement in letters to a Javanese newspaper in shackles. Each person was given a space of two square yards to sleep and another to store their belongings; one small mosquito net, a small mat, a small sheet, a blunt cleaver, an ax head, hoe and spade, all without a handle, and a fortnightly food ration of rice, beans, dried fish, rancid meat, salt, sugar, and tea. In official parlance, the settlers who were willing to work’ were paid for their manual labor; others were given only a small allowance and, it was believed, had less prospect of eventual return. Some of the internees brought their families; children would be born in Boven Digoel. But it was no place for family life. There were six or seven men to every married woman, and tales of promiscuity soon circulated back into the world. The stories were true, wrote Mas Marco, and might be true anywhere, but Boven Digoel was ‘a pocket-sized place that does not match the number of its inhabitants. It is also the case that a situation like that is deliberately set up to cause harm.’22

The camp had no chroniclers: it was home to some of the most educated and luminous Indonesians of the age. They launched publishing and translation and set up language schools. The few visitors to Digoel were taken aback to hear so much Dutch and English spoken. In the evenings, jazz, a cinema show, and an orchestra, a gamelan modeled by a court musician from Solo, Pontjopangrawit, who was among the first batch of detainees. Its bonangs, or rows of gongs, were improvised from various tin cans and, eventually, iron food drums. Later arrivals from Sumatra brought the instruments for an orkes Melayu for Malay opera. Journalists reported all this from Java and the Netherlands as further evidence of the return of normal time.23 But as conditions deteriorated, morale dissipated, monotony and ennui took a heavy toll, and this activity was more a way of simply keeping going. Mas Marco kept writing until an article dated 9 December 1932. At its close, he shifted from Indonesian, the language he had done so much to shape, to Dutch, perhaps that his voice might reach the Netherlands too: 

Reader, here I stop this history. This is just one history, just one fairy tale, just one 'sprookje,' just one strange event where civilization ends on society's fringes. O you, intellectuals and nationalists, we ask that you be mild in your judgment on us exiles, the rubbish of your society, the political exiles in Digoel. To you Indonesians, we address these words. Contemplate for what we have struggled and suffered. Remember what we have sacrificed for Mother Indonesia.24

He died in March 1932 from malaria. There is a photograph of him, near the end, with his wife, emaciated, barely recognizable. Boven Digoel marked the grotesque, bitter death of ‘ethical’ imperialism. In a century of exile, Boven Digoel was one of its cruelest manifestations: internal to the Indies but irretrievably distant. But in colonial Asia in the 1930s, such places multiplied, a premonition of the new camps opening in Europe. The British penal settlement of the Andamans was recommissioned in 1932 for political prisoners. Poulo Condore, off the coast of Cochinchina, expanded to receive the communists arrested in the Nghe Tinh uprisings. Some prisoners seized the opportunity to claim an education they would or could not complete as free subjects, or, indeed, living an underground existence. In prison, the Vietnamese communists perfected their cell-like organization techniques, propaganda, newspapers, and political classes. By this time, some of the warders were themselves implicated.25 Even in China, where most of the captured senior communist leaders were swiftly executed, those who survived, or were arrested later, were given a measure of preferential treatment, particularly given their high profile in the eyes of the world, and as penal reform became an important aspect of the Kuomintang’s modernization program. Chen Duxiu wrote and received visitors in Longhua jail in Shanghai after his arrest and his thirteen-year sentence in 1932. But this was a rare case, and Chiang Kai-shek intervened personally to forbid warders to pass on news of political prisoners.26

In Kanpur jail, M. N. Roy was first permitted to write to Ellen on 11 August 1931. He was allowed one page, and, as always, replies were infrequent and tortuously slow to arrive:27 

I am lodged in a quiet country-town jail as an ‘A-class prisoner’ – a distinction that entitles one to ‘comforts’ including about 60 pfennigs worth of food a day. You can imagine I should remember the restaurants and cafes of Berlin for food and drink, if for nothing else … In this letter, nothing much can be written about. We can talk about the weather. It is already two weeks that I am in. I am arrested in connection with a case that took place seven years ago – at the time of the fatal Fifth World Congress [of the Communist International]. The Government does not seem to be in a hurry about the trial. It is uncertain when it will begin, and it will surely drag on and on when it does begin. So I must settle down with something serious to do. First, I must prepare the defense, which I shall conduct personally. Then, I shall utilize the time ‘to improve my mind’ if the wherewithal is available. Good books are not easily available. Could you ask August [Thalheimer] to suggest some suitable books? They should preferably be in English; otherwise, there will be difficulty in getting them. They must be procured abroad and sent straight to me in jail. At last, I have a permanent and very safe address. Everything will reach me. Do send me from time to time some intellectual food. It is sporadic in this country.28

The presence of the censor at his shoulder left little place for intimacy. It was sought through discussion of books, and in Roy’s yearning for news of the cosmopolitan life he had led for so many years: the cool autumn in Berlin; its sociability – the ‘Café am Zoo,’ the ‘Jester’ and the ‘Gerold am Knie’krug of Muenchener at the Wilhelmshallen’ – New Year and champagne at Kempinski’s, Rhineland in the spring, St Moritz in high summer.29 Remembering their final holiday together, the Alps became a vision of Utopia: ‘I don’t think the new world of ours will be a large Merano,’ he told Ellen, ‘but certainly we shall see to it that it is better than this miserable one.’ He missed ‘grand music’ and was haunted by the memory of Paul Robeson’s spirituals. He doubted he would ever see Europe again.

The first package of books arrived in mid-October 1931: a fresh copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Friedrich Albert Lange on materialism, and novels, ‘to make up for my negligence of childhood.’30 Roy was scathing, for the most part, of the literary production of India, although he admired Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s, Shesh Prashna (‘The Final Question,’ 1931). He enjoyed most the detective novels of S. S. Van Dine, featuring the dilettantish, polymath detective Philo Vance: ‘I might have been someone like him if I were an idly rich, and escaped being someone else.’31 He filled his letters with long reading lists, confident that friends in Europe and America would subscribe to his education. His study plan sustained him for many years. He began with a history of materialism, ‘to prepare the ground for a materialist interpretation of Indian religion, philosophy, and culture.’32 By December, he finished a long essay on the historical role of Islam. Most of these writings were later published. But, as Roy concluded, ‘Jail is not a university … Prison cells or barracks are not expected to be studies.’33

Roy received a sentence of twelve years. His defense had rested on Raj's illegitimacy, not a refutation of the detailed evidence of his activities and intentions. It was harshly measured against the other sentences at Kanpur and was later reduced to six years. Over this stretch of time, the prison was a constant battle for status and one’s health.34 In early 1932, Roy was in the Central Prison at Bareilly, downgraded by the sentencing judge to ‘B Class’ status. ‘B Class’ prisoners, Roy observed, were not allowed handkerchiefs. He resorted to wiping his nose on his sleeve, telling Ellen, ‘like the President of USSR.’ Roy used his letters to justify to friends in Berlin his decision to return: ‘I did not lose my head.’ ‘To work in India, one must be an Indian, having regard for the Indian mentality.’ But his experience of everyday India in jail life showed how far he had traveled away from it. In October 1933 in Bareilly, Roy acquired a companion in his cell. He found little sympathy for him: 

Really, the chap is harmless, after all. He simply cannot be anything but himself – the product of a decayed civilization awaiting a much-delayed burial. This country needs a Kemal Pasha, to begin with, to chop off the ridiculous tufts on the heads; to make the wearing of fierce mustaches punishable as a culpable homicide; to drive the pampered, idle, gossiping, but outrageously maltreated women out in the streets to work down their fat or cure their anemia, and to free themselves from the malignant curse of suppressed passion; to prohibit the chanting of rigmarole in a language which few understand; and to do many other similar things.35

These defiant musings disguised the deterioration of his health. News of it came to Ellen in the form of a note inserted by the prison superintendent, for her to confine her letters to ‘light and domestic matters.’36 There were cruel rumors in the British press that he was living comfortably in Burma. Roy was only allowed to write to say he was better. In Europe, Ellen, and, in America, Roy’s ex-wife, Evelyn, marshaled international support for his appeal as it traveled, in vain, to the Privy Council in London. 

Roy lived the watershed moments of these years as much as he possibly could. He felt the rise of fascism keenly. His books and papers, stored in a publisher’s cellar in Berlin, were seized when the Nazis came to power, and Ellen had to flee to Paris. Like Tan Malaka, he saw the colonial situation as a premonition of fascism. He had arguably witnessed in China a foretaste of what was to come. ‘There is not one patented brand of Fascism,’ he told Ellen. ‘It may have different forms and come in devious ways.’37 He followed the deepening schisms on the left and the purges in the Soviet Union. In a coded way, he asked about ‘the Sentimental Dutchman,’ Henk Sneevliet, now a follower of the Lion’, Trotsky.38 Roy had already experienced at first hand the suspicion and denunciations of spies, saboteurs, and Trotskyites. Now the Comintern was simultaneously a witness, a participant, and a victim to the Great Terror.39 Foreign communists were especially vulnerable: on one list of executions during the purges, eighty-three of the victims had an address at the Hotel Lux.40 Roy’s old rival Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, ‘Chatto,’ was executed in 1937; so too was Roy’s nemesis Abani Mukherji, by then a professor of political economy at Moscow University. In the spring of 1934, Vera Vladimirovna ran into her ‘Li Annam,’ Nguyen Ai Quoc, on the staircase of the Institute of World Politics and Economy. They exchanged addresses, but they did not meet again; it was too dangerous to draw attention to their shared past.41 Quoc had only recently returned to Russia; his standing at this time was very unclear. Like Roy, he fully expected to be held accountable for his part in China and Southeast Asia's failures. He was investigated but left unpunished. Unlike Roy, he had not set himself up as an oracle. As Vietnam sank lower in the priorities of the Comintern, and the Comintern loomed lower in the priorities of the Soviet Union, he survived when many others did not, sidelined as a mature student at the Stalin School.42

These dark years were a time of stasis, isolation, and estrangement. Roy had few visitors: friends were either in jail themselves or unable to travel for days to see him. He began a series of discussions with leaders of the Indian National Congress. On his early release in November 1936, he was met at the prison gate by Congress supporters, feted and garlanded as he traveled to a Congress meeting at Faizpur. There he was elected to its governing body and welcomed as a veteran of the freedom struggle by Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who offered his homes in Allahabad and Delhi for his recuperation. After all, Roy was, as Subhas Chandra Bose later remarked, ‘a popular and attractive figure with a halo around his name’. It seemed that his hour had come. But as Roy stepped out of the shadows, many within Congress, particularly on the left, feared that his ‘Royists’ would establish a secret party within Congress, as Roy had attempted to do from Berlin ten years earlier. Some refused to believe he was a nationalist at all.43 Roy, launching criticisms at all sides, did little to disabuse them. Despite their cordial relationship, Nehru concluded that Roy would demand a ‘complete break with the past’ and ‘utterly out of touch with India's realities today.’ For twenty years, Roy had had little opportunity to experience them truly. His most steadfast commitment had been to a struggle on a global plane. He had broken entirely with the Hindu patriotism of his Swadeshi youth in Mexico in 1917.44 Gandhi, for his part, would have nothing to do with Roy and his anti-religion: he saw Roy as ‘enemy number one’.45 

Across colonial Asia, in normal times, the only possible open national politics was more tempered, less international, and far less than the ‘compete break with the past’ proposed by the likes of Roy. In 1937, Tan Malaka left his rural isolation in Fujian province and travelled to Singapore. He noted a growth of ethnic enclaves on the island and contrasted it to his earlier sojourn in 1927 when Singapore seemed to be a more open, inclusive urban landscape.46 In the inter-war years, faced with the growing policing of movement and the hardening of territorial boundaries, the massive flows of people that had dominated Asian history for a century or more began to ebb. Colonial sociologists of empire reported greater ethnic tensions and more segmented, ‘plural’ societies. The persecution of Bolshevism impacted equally on the politics of open, democratic socialism. It rendered any politics across ethnicity, on class lines, more difficult, if not impossible.47 It also worked to discredit and to limit the possibilities of an outside alliance. In these conditions across Asia, more territorial, more exclusive, ethnic and religious nationalisms expanded to fill the breach in this absence. In China, although it never entirely shed its ‘left,’ nor its technocratic reforming goals, the Kuomintang turned decisively away from social revolution to become a more corporatist, conservative, and martial entity.48 In Indonesia, although Sukarno himself was arrested, tried, imprisoned and spent most of the 1930s in prison or internal exile, the open political field was dominated by his populist Partai Nasional Indonesia and its successor, Partindo, and their insistence on ‘Indonesia’ as the basis of the political community.49 In Vietnam, communism had to compete in the countryside with synthetic and revivalist religious movements such as the Cao Dai and the Buddhist millenarianism of the Hoa Hao.50

And yet the closeness of things far away, and the allure of global influences, endured. As colonial censorship hardened, the legend of the underground was perpetuated through fiction and film, particularly in ‘wild literature.’ In the Netherlands Indies, roman picisan (‘ten-cent,’ or pulp fiction) and roman Politik were hugely popular; around 400 such titles were published between 1938 and 1942 from provincial towns such as Medan, Bukittinggi, and Solo. They were set in a futurist, subterranean world of trickery, evasion, and betrayal. One popular series, authored by Matu Mona, featured the Padjar Merah Indonesia, or the Scarlet Pimpernel of Indonesia. The tales were set in a thinly disguised parallel universe of the Indonesian exiles in Europe, the Soviet Union, Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, Shanghai, and elsewhere, and featured characters such as ‘Mussotte,’ ‘Aliminsky’ and ‘Darsonov.’ The Pimpernel himself was a man of multiple aliases and magical powers, whose clandestine international organization allowed him to appear at crucial moments to challenge injustice and reveal the truth. He was also in very poor health. The stories betrayed an uncanny knowledge of the secret movements of Tan Malaka and added to the existing myths of his shape-shifting powers, sexual abstinence, and global friendships. The preface of the second book told of how Matu Mona drew inspiration for the story at the Raffles Library in Singapore, a known haunt of Tan Malaka. The books were a gateway to an ‘anti-world’ where the fictive and non-fictive were in constant interplay.51 This sense of plots real and unhatched or awakening slumber was palpable and evoked the ‘just king’ older millenarian expectation. In Java, as Japanese influence reasserted itself, it heralded the fulfilment of the prophecy of the twelfth-century King Joyoboyo: that the rule of the white man would end with the coming of the dwarfish yellow men who would reign as long as ‘a maize seed took to flower’.52


1. This paragraph and the next are based on Dennis J. Duncanson, ‘Ho-Chi-Minh in Hong Kong, 1931–32’, The China Quarterly, 57 (1974), pp. 84–100 and documents collected by the Ho Chi Minh Museum and published in an English edition ed. by Lady Borton and Trinh Ngoc Thai, The Legal Case of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) in Hong Kong, 1931–1933 (Documents and Photographs), Hanoi, National Political Publishers/Ho Chi Minh Museum, 2006.

2. These artifacts are to be found in ANOM, Indo HCI/SPCE 365.

3. William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, New York, Hyperion, 2000, pp. 198–9, 207.

4. M. N. Roy, My Experiences in China, Calcutta, Renaissance Publishers, 1945, p. 53.

5. M. N. Roy, Revolution, and Counter-Revolution in China, Calcutta, Renaissance Publishers, 1946.

6. Sonia Gandhi (ed.), Two Alone, Two Together: Letters Between Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, 1922–1964, New Delhi, Penguin Books India, 2004, p. 95.

7. Sibnarayan Ray (ed.), The World Her Village: Selected Writings and Letters of Ellen Roy, Calcutta, Ananda, 1979, pp. 1–46. 

8. M. N. Roy, Memoirs, Bombay, Allied Publishers, pp. 581–3

9. E.g. Government of India, India, and Communism, pp. 162–9. 

10. Suchetana Chattopadhyay, An Early Communist: Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, Tulika Books, Delhi, 2011, pp. 217–24, at p. 219.

11. For a contemporary account see Lester Hutchinson, Conspiracy at Meerut, London, Allen & Unwin, 1935. See the collection edited by Michele L. Louro and Carolien Stolte, ‘Introduction: The Meerut Conspiracy Case in Comparative and International Perspective’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, 33/3 (2013), pp. 310–15.

12. The UK National Archives (henceforth TNA), FO1093/92, ‘The Noulens Case’, 7 March 1932, p. 36.

13. Abidin Kusno, ‘From City to City: Tan Malaka, Shanghai and the Politics of Geographical Imagining’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 24/3 (2003), pp. 327–39. This article has been for me a seminal influence. 

14. Harry PoezeTan Malaka, pp. 414–17.

15. House of Commons Debates, 14 February 1933, vol. 274, cc. 835–6W.

16. TNA, FO 372/2913, William Peel, Governor of Hong Kong to Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, 16 August 1933.

17. Letter from Tan Malaka to the China League for Civil Rights, February 1933, in Poeze, Tan Malaka, p. 572.

18. Tan Malaka’s own account of these years is rich in local color, but sparse in most other respects, Tan Malaka, From Jail to Jail, vol. 11, pp. 53–90; Poeze, Tan Malaka, pp. 447–50. 

19. This account draws on seminal work by Takashi Shiraishi, ‘The Phantom World of Digoel’, Indonesia, 61 (1996), pp. 93–118, and Rudolf Mrázek, Sjahrir: Politics and Exile in Indonesia, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press/SEAP Publications, 1994, pp. 129–53; Rudolf Mrázek, ‘Boven Digoel and Terezín: Camps at the Time of Triumphant Technology’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, 3 (2009), pp. 287–314.

20. Mas Marco Kartodikromo, ‘Community of Exiles in Boven Digul’, in Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo, The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2009, p. 275.

21. Greta O. Wilson (ed.), Regents, Reformers, and Revolutionaries: Indonesian Voices of Colonial Days, Selected Historical Readings, 1899–1949, Honolulu, University Press of Hawaii, 1978, p. 139.

22. Mas Marco Kartodikromo, ‘Community of Exiles in Boven Digul’, pp. 276, 279.

23. Margaret J. Kartomi, The Gamelan Digul and the Prison Camp Musician who Built it: An Australian Link with the Indonesian Revolution, Rochester, NY, University of Rochester Press, 2003; Rudolf Mrázek, ‘Thick Whisper and Thin Victory: Concentration Camps’ Contribution to Modern Acoustics’, Social Text, 33/1 (122) (2015), pp. 1–25.

24. Mas Marco Kartodikromo, Pergaulan Orang Buangan Di Boven Digoel, Jakarta, KPG, 2002, pp. 177–8.

25. Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862–1940, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001, esp. pp. 200–239.

26. Frank Dikötter, Crime, Punishment and the Prison in Modern China, London, Hurst, 2002, p. 2901.

27. My reading of these letters has been informed by Kris Manjapra, ‘The Impossible Intimacies of M. N. Roy’, Postcolonial Studies, 16/2 (2013), pp. 169–84.

28. M. N. Roy, Fragments of a Prisoner’s Diary, vol. III: Letters from Jail, Dehra Dun, Indian Renaissance Association, 1943, pp. 1–2.

29. Ibid., p. 22.

30. Ibid., p. 6.

31. Ibid., p. 12.

32. Ibid., p. 26

33. Ibid., p. 21.

34. For context see Taylor Sherman, State Violence and Punishment in India, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 93–110.

35. Roy, Fragments of a Prisoner’s Diary, p. 70.

36. Ibid., p. 21.

37. Ibid., p. 37.

38. Ibid., pp. 54, 49.

39. W. J. Chase, Enemies within the Gates?: The Comintern and Stalinist Repression, 1934–1939, New Haven, CT, and London, Yale University Press, 2002.

40. Brigitte Studer, The Transnational World of the Cominternians, Basingstoke, AIAA, 2015, p. 137 and passim.

41. Vera Vladimirovna Vishnyakova-Akimova, Two Years in Revolutionary China, 1925–1927, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 229.

42. Sophie Quinn-Judge, Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941, London, Hurst, 2003, pp. 200–219.

43. John Patrick Haithcox, ‘Left Wing Unity and the Indian Nationalist Movement: M. N. Roy and the Congress Socialist Party’, Modern Asian Studies, 3/1 (1969), pp. 17–56.

44. Kris Manjapra, M. N. Roy: An Intellectual Biography of M. N. Roy, New Delhi, Routledge India, 2010, pp. 151–61; the quotation from Nehru is at p. 152.

45. Haithcox, ‘Left Wing Unity and the Indian Nationalist Movement’, p. 45.

46. Tan Malaka, From Jail to Jail, vol. II, pp. 102–12.

47. My thinking on this has been shaped by Sumit K. Mandal, ‘Transethnic Solidarities, Racialisation and Social Equality’, in Mandal and Terence Gomez (eds), The State of Malaysia: Ethnicity, Equity and Reform, London, Routledge Curzon, 2002, pp. 49–78.

48. For a recent summary see Brian Tsui, China’s Conservative Revolution: The Quest for a New Order, 1927–1949, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018.

49. For the triumph of this concept see R. E. Elson, The Idea of Indonesia: A History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

50. For the latter see Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1983.

51. Noriaki Oshikawa, ‘“Patjar Merah Indonesia” and Tan Malaka: A Popular Novel and a Revolutionary Legend’, in Takashi Shiraishi (ed.), Reading Southeast Asia: Translation of Contemporary Japanese Scholarship on Southeast Asia, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2000, pp. 9–39.

52. For this see Peter Carey, ‘Myths, Heroes and War’, in Peter Carey and Colin Wild (eds), Born in Fire: The Indonesian Struggle for Independence: An Anthology, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1986, pp. 6–11. 


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