India’s Freedom Struggle: The Spanish Connection

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    Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, references have repeatedly been made to the ‘Spanish Influenza’ of 1918-19 and how India dealt with it. But there were events in faraway Spain two decades later, after that that would touch the hearts of Indians here at home in ways that would have lasting repercussions.

    The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in which the socialists and fascists fought each other for supremacy, fired the imagination of Indians waging their own fight and leaders as diverse as Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Mulk Raj Anand and even a young Indira Gandhi rallied in solidarity with the Spanish republicans.

    The Background: India and the World in the 1930s

    The 1920s and ’30s were marked by struggles between socialists and fascists in countries across Europe, including Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Italy and Spain. The Great Depression added fuel to that fire, sparking prolonged labour conflicts and strikes by the Left and the rallying of jobless youth by the Right.

    This was a time when the freedom struggle in India was turning into a mass movement. The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 had turned most Indians against the British, and the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements launched under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi were gaining momentum. Indian revolutionaries inspired by the Ghadar Movement and major global movements such as the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1918 were now gearing up to fight against the British.

    By the early 1930s, the Indian leaders had switched from demands for dominion status to a demand for total independence. The Government of India Act came into being in 1935 and granted a large measure of autonomy to the provinces of British India, establishing a ‘Federation of India’ that consisted of all of British India and the princely states.

    By now, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Tagore and others were conceptualising their idea of a new India and its place in the world. And it was this that led them to forge close connections around the world, whether with the Chinese revolutionaries in the late 1920s or Ethiopia, when it had been invaded by Italy in 1936. Indian leaders sent humanitarian aid and supported these countries in other ways.

    The Spanish Civil War

    In the 1920s, Spain was a constitutional monarchy under King Alfonso XIII, who ruled like a military dictator. In 1923, he appointed General Primo de Rivera as prime minister and he ruled until the 1930s. His rule is considered a ‘golden age’ because, unlike his predecessors, he focused on reform and development, particularly in industry and agriculture. He also played a pivotal role in ending the long-running rebellion in the Spanish colony of Morocco, which his predecessors had sought to violently quash.

    Spanish Civil War Begins

    In 1931, a Left-wing socialist government was elected in Spain. But what followed were years of strife between the socialists and fascists, which took the form of riots, street battles and political assassinations. There was so much mistrust between the Left and the Right wings that both sides felt that a violent revolt was the only way forward.

    On 17 July 1936, units of the Spanish army under General Francisco Franco staged a military coup but were resisted by those loyal to the government. The civil war had begun.

    The Reaction in India

    To the world at large, the Spanish Civil War became a conflict between opposing ideas of society – between democracy and fascism, freedom and tyranny. It was seen at par with the battles fought in Ethiopia against Benito Mussolini, and in China against Japan. Many supported the republicans and travelled to Spain to join the international brigade of socialist volunteers from around the world. In India, there was widespread public support for the Spanish republicans.

    In a pamphlet titled To The Conscience of Humanity (1937) Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

    “In Spain, the world civilization is being menaced and trampled underfoot. Against the democratic government of the Spanish people, Franco has raised the standard of revolt. International Fascism is pouring men and money in aid of the rebels… The devastating tide of International Fascism must be checked… At this hour of the supreme trial and suffering of the Spanish people, I appeal to the conscience of humanity. Help the peoples’ front in Spain, help the Government of the people cry in a million voices ‘Halt!’… Come in your millions to the aid of democracy, to the succour of civilization and culture.”

    Role Played by Indian Writers

    In her work, Political Humanitarianism In The 1930s: Indian Aid for Republican Spain, Dr Maria Framke of the University of Rostock, Germany, speaks of how news on the civil war was written about not only by Indian journalists, but by renowned authors that included Mulk Raj Anand.

    Amid his own fight for Indian independence, Anand was living in Britain from 1924-1945, dedicating himself to Left politics and establishing himself as a writer, critic and journalist. He expressed his anti-colonial and anti-fascist views in British journals and newspapers, and in speeches that he gave, for instance, at the meetings of Indians organised in London by V K Krishna Menon, an outspoken and fearless nationalist confidant of Nehru.

    This activism brought him in close contact with British intellectuals and activists such as Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, H N Brailsford and Ralf Fox. Anand also joined the International Brigades of Socialist volunteers for three months. He communicated his war experiences to Indian socialist and communist circles by publishing several articles in the Congress Socialist and the National Front.

    Noted Indian journalist Shirsho Dasgupta, in his work Eighty Years Later, A Homage To Catalonia: Indians And The Spanish Civil War, speaks of how the celebrated Telugu poet Srirangam Srinivasarao, who was by then a Marxist having been influenced by the October Revolution in Russia, wrote his first poem Jayabheri (‘Drums of Victory’) in honour of the republican soldiers in Spain.

    In Behind The Battle (1939), writer and journalist T C Worsley describes his experiences in Barcelona in 1937. He talks of an Indian journalist named ‘Krishna’ who was writing for a number of Indian newspapers from Spain. When an American journalist asked Krishna how he billed the newspapers for his reporting, he replied that he was not paid but was doing it to let Indians know what was happening in Spain. Nothing more is known about this man.

    Nehru, The Congress & The Civil War

    In the annual session of the Congress in December 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru declared:

    “In Spain today, our battles are being fought and we watch this struggle not merely with the sympathy of friendly outsiders, but with the painful anxieties of those who are themselves involved in it.”

    Nehru also condemned the League of Nations for following a policy of non-intervention and accused it of preventing democratic forces from effectively combating fascism. The Spanish Civil War was now being closely followed by many in the Congress, and many Indian cities had started observing ‘Spain Day’ in August, to express their solidarity with the struggle for the Spanish Republic.

    In the book Raj, Secrets, Revolution: A Life Of Subhas Chandra Bose, British-Indian journalist Mihir Bose mentions that Netaji wrote a long essay for Modern Review published in August 1937, where he analysed why Italy and Germany were intervening on behalf of Franco. He thought that a world war might come about through German miscalculation, as in 1914, when Germany had not believed that Britain would fight. His various meetings with Mussolini had made him readily accept Il Duce’s notions of Italian military strength, which the war was to prove illusory. He concluded his 14-page essay by saying:

    “If Franco wins, it will be a victory for Italy and Germany, and will mean the end of British hegemony in the Mediterranean and dark days ahead of France.”

    In his book, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Study In Ideology And Social Change, Rajendra Prasad Dube writes:

    “In the Spanish struggle, all the values of European civilization which Nehru held dear to his heart seemed to be at stake – democracy, socialism, human dignity, self-determination, individual freedom.”

    Dasgupta, in Eighty Years Later, A Homage To Catalonia: Indians And The Spanish Civil War, tells us that in London, V K Krishna Menon, then secretary of the India League, a UK-based organisaiton that campaigned for India’s independence, collaborated with resident Indians to send food to starving and entrenched Republicans in Spain. Towards this end, the India League founded the Indian Committee for Food for Spain, of which Feroze Gandhi was the organising secretary.

    The committee organised cultural events to raise funds and donated an ambulance to “the courageous Spanish democrats in the name of the people of India and Ceylon”. Indira Gandhi (then Indira Nehru), who was studying at Oxford at the time, helped organise some of these events and spoke at some of them. She was also associated with an organisation that solicited volunteers for the International Brigades.

    Noted theatre director, dancer, and playwright, Shanta Gandhi, then studying medicine in England, grew close to Indira and her husband Feroze and, through them, to Krishna Menon and his young ‘Free India’ associates. She joined a dance troupe to raise funds for the republicans in Spain and often helped Indira organise fund-raising events for the London-based Aid Spain Committee.

    In his work, Spain! Why?: Indian Anti-Imperialism, Anti-Fascism, And The Spanish Civil War, Ole Birk Laursen, an English lecturer at New York University, London, speaks about the setting up of the International Brigades by the Communist International to assist the Spanish republican cause on 17 July 1936. At the same time, the September 1936 Non-Interventionist Agreement signed by 27 countries, including Britain, France and Germany, effectively banned the entry of British nationals into Spain. However, in January 1937, British socialists established the British Battalion of the International Brigades, officially named the Saklatvala Battalion, after the Indian Communist MP for Battersea, Shapurji Saklatvala, who had died in January 1936.

    In their work, Gopal Mukund Huddar: An Indian Volunteer In The IBs, Nancy Tsou and Lan Tsou tell us that in June 1938, Pandit Nehru traveled to Spain with Menon and daughter Indira, met General Enrique Lister at the latter’s headquarters and Catalan President Lluís Companys, to express India’s solidarity with their cause. He was so impressed that he later wrote in his book, Towards Freedom:

    “There was light there, the light of courage and determination and of doing something worthwhile.”

    On July 17, 1938, on the second anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Nehru addressed a crowd of 5,000 in Trafalgar Square, London, at a rally in aid of Republican Spain.

    In his work, Why These Indians Fought For Spanish Democracy, Dr Charu Sudan Kasturi mentions the Barcelona-based historian Nick Lloyd, who had made the following statement:

    “The Indians who came, or who gave some form of aid, saw the fight for the Spanish Republic quite simply as part of a wider struggle which also included the struggle against British colonialism back home.”

    The Curious Case of Gopal Mukund Huddar

    There were many Indians who took an active part in supporting the republican cause in Spain, prominent among them being journalist Gopal Mukund Huddar; a student Veerappan Ramasamy; and doctors Mehanlal Atal, Manuel Pinto and Ayub Ahmed Khan Naqshbandi, who treated revolutionaries during the fight. They would also go on to serve the same cause in the China-Japan conflict. Of these, the story of Huddar is perhaps the most riveting.

    Born in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, in 1902, he was a founding member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but when differences cropped up, he resigned from the organisation.

    In the work, Gopal Mukund Huddar: An Indian Volunteer In The IBs, Nancy Tsou and Lan Tsou say that Huddar kept working for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ until he was advised by a philanthropist friend from Nagpur to study further. Huddar went to London to study journalism, where after understanding the international resistance against fascism in Spain, he was drawn to the ideas of communism.

    Gopal’s Battle Against Fascism

    In his work, Why These Indians Fought For Spanish Democracy, Dr Charu Sudan Kasturi mentions that Huddar enrolled in the International Brigades under the English name John Smith. On February 11, 1938, he joined the XV Brigade, nicknamed the ‘Abraham Lincoln Brigade’ because it was dominated by American volunteers.

    Nancy and Lan Tsou say Huddar went to Tarazona in Spain, to receive non-commissioned-officer training and then served as an instructor in the infantry. But on April 3, he disappeared, taken prisoner by Franco’s army in the battle of Gandesa and imprisoned with other brigadiers in San Pedro de Cardeña.

    Now the British government was being pressured by its people to negotiate with Franco for the release of British prisoners. As a result, a team was dispatched, among them a retired colonel whose son was also being held prisoner. When the colonel visited his son at the prison, he encountered a peculiar prisoner who bore the name ‘John Smith’ but looked Indian. John Smith revealed to the colonel that he was actually Indian and his real name was Gopal Mukund Huddar!

    After his release, Huddar was given a hero’s welcome in London in 1938 and then in Bombay, where in his speech, he said:

    “The honour you have done me is really the honour to the cause of democracy and freedom which Spanish workers and peasants are defending with their lives… The fight for democracy is in India just as it is in Spain. The very same British Imperialism which helps Franco and Mussolini in their attempt to destroy Spain is holding us down. We have to fight against it. We have to build the unity of the workers, peasants and the middle classes just as the Spanish people have done.”

    Huddar went on to join the Communist Party of India in 1940 and was a prominent member till his death in 1981. Dr Mehanlal went to China, where he settled and died at the age of 71. It was his story that led Len and Nancy Tsou, authors of The Call of Spain: The Chinese Volunteers In The Spanish Civil War (2013), to the other Indians, thus also stumbling upon Huddar’s story.

    Lessons Learnt

    In 1939, the Spanish Republic finally fell. General Franco established a dictatorship with Madrid as his capital. Nehru’s faith in the West was severely shaken by these events and he wrote in his book, Towards Freedom:

    “For Spain was not Spain only, but the new world locked in a death struggle with the barbarian hordes of reaction and brutal violence… Spain and Czechoslovakia represented to me precious values in life… If I deserted them, what would I cherish in India, for what kind of freedom do we struggle?”

    Despite the defeat, the struggle for the cause of the Spanish republic inspired Nehru, Menon, Huddar and many others, and lit a spark in the fight for freedom of their motherland.


    Yash Mishra is a Delhi-based writer with a passionate interest in cinema and Indian history.

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