Dr Pandurang Khankhoje: The Ironic Revolutionary

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    The Indian freedom struggle was fought not only on home ground but also on the international stage. It was a canvas that allowed Indian revolutionaries to fight the good fight overseas in their mission to mount an armed struggle against the British in India.

    This is the story of an Indian revolutionary who in the early 20th century, travelled across Europe, America, the erstwhile Soviet Union, Japan and China to become part of an international front against British imperialism. This is the story of an Indian revolutionary who fled to Mexico to dodge the British Secret Service but ended up launching a Green Revolution there. This is the story of a humble boy from the backwaters of Maharashtra, who was destined for greatness.

    Let’s start at the very beginning. Dr Pandurang Sadashiv Khankhoje was born in Wardha in Maharashtra in 1886 a time when Western education and events such as the Bengal Partition had brought about a national awakening. These developments had also given rise to a new breed of freedom fighters called 'revolutionaries'.

    Khankhoje received his early schooling in his native Wardha and moved to Nagpur, the nearest big city, to complete his higher studies. His grandfather was a revolutionary who had fought in the Revolt of 1857 and instilled in the boy the values of equality and social justice.

    From a young age, Khankhoje nursed a raging fire in his belly, and the work of leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak made a deep impression on him. It took just one meeting with Tilak in the early 1900s for the young but determined Khankhoje to start dreaming of an armed struggle against British rule in India.

    On Tilak’s urging, Khankhoje travelled to Japan, to learn from the victory of the Imperial Japanese Army over the Imperial Russian Army at Port Arthur in 1904 Russo-Japanese War. He also met Chinese revolutionaries including Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Republic of China. The Chinese leader stressed the importance of agriculture in a nation’s development and this had a profound effect on Khankhoje. What he gleaned from these leaders set the tone for his future work in the United States, where he travelled purely due to a chance event.

    Khankhoje’s daughter Dr Savitri Sawhney writes in her book Revolutionary Work: Pandurang Khankhoje & Tina Modotti, that her father set sail from China for the US in 1906, along with Chinese labourers who were headed to America to help rebuild San Francisco, which had been levelled by a massive earthquake.

    The Ghadar Party

    In San Francisco, our revolutionary-in-the-making found the going tough due to his slight physique, but he did not give up. Khankhoje worked as a waiter, a dishwasher and a hospital attendant, and saved enough money to enroll at the University of California, Berkeley, as a student of agricultural studies.

    He graduated from the university in 1910 with a doctorate in agricultural research, but while he was there, he also learnt about the struggle of Latin American countries against Spain, the Mexican Revolution and the Irish revolutionaries’ fight against the British Crown. A year later, he enrolled at the nearby Mount Tamalpais Military Academy, to train for his future armed struggle against the British.

    In the US, Khankhoje met other Indian immigrants, especially Punjabis, who had migrated in large numbers in search of better economic opportunities. They had moved to the West to escape the repressive restrictions imposed by the British in India. Being an immigrant is never easy and the Punjabis needed a platform to voice their views on the socio-political challenges they were facing in the US. Their struggle resonated with the tough times Khankhoje was himself experiencing – and something instantly clicked.

    Khankhoje stepped up his mission and kept meeting with Indian immigrants across the US. He teamed up with Pandit Kanshi Ram and Sohan Singh Bakhna, and founded the Indian Independence League. Soon, the trio met Lala Hardayal, a Stanford University professor, and together they founded the Ghadar Party (initially called the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association), which stirred up nationalist sentiments among Indians in the US and also went on to conduct organised uprisings in Punjab.

    Alongside this, Khankhoje, with the help of his Mexican revolutionary friends, trained many immigrant Indians and ex-servicemen for an armed battle against British rule in India, at an isolated farmland of a fellow Ghadarite in Portland, Oregon.

    The Hindu-German Conspiracy

    The First World War had just broken out and Indian revolutionaries in the US started teaming up with other, international revolutionary groups and found close allies in Germany and Turkey. This led to the Ghadar Party, including Khankhoje, finding themselves at the centre of the Hindu-German Conspiracy. The ‘conspiracy’ was a rebellion against the British in India that was supported by the German Foreign Office, Ottoman Turkey and the Irish republican movement.

    In his work, History of the Ghadar Movement, Punjabi historian Dr Jaspal Singh writes about German troops approaching India via Central Asia. Here, their leader Wilhelm Wassmuss was joined by Khankhoje, and together they built an army of recruits to enter India via Baluchistan. This leg of the mission saw Khankhoje spending a year with the local Qashqai tribes while he recovered from an injury sustained in a skirmish with the British.

    Second Wind

    By 1915, the Ghadar movement had faded. Many of the revolutionaries and their leaders had been arrested, hanged or massacred in places like Rangoon, Singapore and India. But Khankhoje didn’t give up. He travelled to Paris and met Madam Bhikaaji Cama. Next, he went to Berlin and met Virendranath Chattopadhyay, brother of Indian freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu. Here, they fought for Indian self-determination as they had done in the US while in the Ghadar Party.

    This infused fresh enthusiasm into Khankhoje, who was now keen on meeting Vladimir Lenin. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin had risen to international prominence and, in 1917, Khankhoje went to Russia to meet the Soviet leader. On this meeting, Dr Savitri said,

    “Though his delegation was initially denied access, Khankhoje was singled out for the meeting and both men talked at a length. Despite that, the meeting couldn’t turn out to be fruitful because the Russians were more interested in the Persian democratic movement. But that didn’t stop Khankhoje remaining loyal to Lenin’s ideals for his entire life.”

    The Mexican Chronicles

    After his second setback, Khankhoje was left with only one option. Britain had foiled the Hindu-German Conspiracy and was anxious to nab Khankhoje. Fearing British secret agents, he fled to Mexico, where he was still in touch with revolutionaries there. The year was 1924. In the book, Indian Revolutionaries: 1757-1961- A Comprehensive Study (Vol-2), Srikrishan ‘Sarala’ says that Khankhoje had now returned to Berlin and founded an association for the Indian students with Bhupendranath Dutt & Virendranath Chattopadhyay. During that time, along with the fear of the British agents, USA had also entered the war & Khankhoje couldn’t find a better place than Mexico. From Berlin, he left for Mexico.

    In her book, Dr Savitri Sawhney refers to how her father was practically starving when he started growing vegetables in Xochimilco, near Mexico City. He began to search for his old revolutionary friends from the days of the Mexican uprising. Ramón P de Negri was now Agriculture Minister and Luis Monzón was a Senator. These connections and his passion for agriculture encouraged Khankhoje to take up a job as a professor at the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo.

    Khankhoje learnt Spanish and began working with peasants across the country. He soon realized that there was a dire need for Mexican farmers to learn new techniques and scientific methods to improve the quality and yield of their crops. Khankhoje worked on developing varieties of high-yielding corn and studied wheat, with particular attention to drought- and disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties. Clearly, plant genetics had become the subject of his revolutionary endeavours!

    While on this mission, Khankhoje met Diego Rivera, the great Mexican painter and muralist, who supported the Free Schools of Agriculture founded by the Indian revolutionary-cum-scientist in Mexico. They were both communists at heart and shared the same ideals.

    Rivera introduced Khankhoje to another comrade, Tina Modotti, the famous Italian social activist and artist. The trio developed special alchemy and fed off each other’s energy and work. Modotti photographed the prevailing social conditions in Mexico and worked actively with Khankhoje for the cause of Mexico’s farmers.

    The main objective was to introduce new farming techniques and improve the peasants’ standard of living. Khankhoje’s experiments resulted in new high-yield varieties of corn, which went on to become a massive hit in all of Latin America. His work created a foundation for Mexico’s Green Revolution led by Dr Norman Borlaug. His research was also used as a case study for Indian scientists who ushered the Green Revolution into India. But it was Modotti’s photographs and Rivera’s paintings that made Khankhoje a celebrity in Mexico.

    After India attained independence in 1947, Khankhoje was reluctant to return because the British had banned him from entering the country. He was ultimately taken back in 1955, when he returned with his Belgian wife, Jeanne, and daughters Savitri and Maya.

    Khankhoje refused the financial help offered by the Indian government and, instead, asked that it be used for the agricultural development of the country. He spent the latter years of his life away from the public gaze and immersed himself in the study of holy texts.

    On 18th January 1967, a light went out when Dr Pandurang Sadashiv Khankhoje passed away at the age of 81. His was a very unusual life – one that began as a soldier battling to free his country from an imperial power but ending as a revolutionary who worked to free millions from hunger in a foreign land.


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

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