Gopal Mukund Huddar: An Indian Volunteer in the IBs
Among a handful of India-born brigaders who fought with the Spanish Republic was Gopal Mukund Huddar, a journalism student in his thirties. Nancy and Len Tsou, experts on the Asian volunteers in Spain, tell his remarkable story, which passes through the POW camp at San Pedro de Cardeña.
A public meeting, organized by the Indian Swaraj League, a political organization demanding India’s self-rule, drew a large audience of spectators, both Indians and British, to Essex Hall along the north bank of the River Thames on November 12, 1938. Speakers from various Indian and British organizations were there to welcome an “Indian member of the International Brigades who fought for the Republican Government in Spain, and who recently returned to England after being a prisoner of Franco.”
The guest of honor was Gopal Mukund Huddar. On the invitation card, Huddar was highlighted as the “only” Indian member of the International Brigades. In fact, he was one of several Indian volunteers, including the famous Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, three Indian doctors, Dr. Menhanlal Atal, Dr. Ayub Ahmed Khan and Dr. Manuel Rocha Pinto, and one Indian student Ramasamy Veerapan. Among them, Huddar was the only Indian prisoner-of-war in Franco’s prison.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Huddar was studying in England. Together with some British volunteers, he arrived in Spain on October 17, 1937. At the headquarters of the International Brigades in Albacete, he was assigned as member of the Saklatvala Battalion. This was a British Battalion named after Shapurji Saklatvala, a prominent Indian Communist in England who had died in 1936. To support the Spanish Republic, his 18-year-old daughter Sehri Saklatvala arranged an event “FOR SPAIN, India Evening” in London in March 1937, which was organized by the Spain-India Committee. One of the speakers was Indira Nehru, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, future first Prime Minister of India.
At the time, Jawaharlal Nehru was very concerned about the fascist menace in Spain. He said, “I wish, and many of you will wish with me, that we could give some effective assistance to our comrades in Spain, something more than sympathy, however, deeply felt.”
Nehru: “I wish, and many of you will wish with me, that we could give some effective assistance to our comrades in Spain, something more than sympathy, however, deeply felt.”
Nehru’s call was answered by the Indians living in Britain. The India League, a Britain-based organization that campaigned for full independence, founded the “Indian Committee for Food For Spain.” In the fall of 1937, the Spain-India Aid Committee donated an ambulance to “the courageous Spanish democrats.” A year later, in June 1938, Nehru himself traveled to Spain. He paid visits to General Enrique Lister at Lister’s headquarters and the fronts, and also to Catalan president Lluís Companys, to show India’s solidarity. He was so impressed that later he wrote, “There was light there, the light of courage and determination and of doing something worthwhile.” On July 17, 1938 at the second anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Nehru addressed a crowd of 5,000 in Trafalgar Square in London at a rally in aid of Republican Spain.
It was in this same spirit that Huddar joined the IBs in 1937. To shield his Indian lineage, Huddar changed his name to “John Smith”, a common English name. There were at least four men named “John Smith” in the International Brigades. To differentiate him from the other “Smiths,” his comrades added “Irakian” after his name. This was probably because he indicated that he knew the Iraqi language when he filled out forms in Spain. Some of his comrades even thought he was born in Iraq. However, relatives of Huddar said that he was born in India and never set foot in Iraq. In fact, they never heard him speak the Iraqi language. His daughter believed that this was a tactic of her father’s to camouflage his true identity.
To shield his Indian lineage, Huddar changed his name to “John Smith.”
On February 11, 1938, Huddar went to Tarazona to receive non-commissioned officer training and then served as an instructor in the Infantry. But on April 3, Huddar disappeared in the battle of Gandesa, taken prisoner by Franco’s army and imprisoned with other brigaders in San Pedro de Cardeña.
One of his jail mates was Carl Geiser, a brigader from the U.S., who had vivid memories of “John Smith” in the jail. Geiser identified him as Nagfeur Hudar from India. In his book Prisoners of the Good Fight, Geiser wrote about him giving lectures on “the struggle for independence from Britain of the people of India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.” In another lecture, John Smith described himself as having some of the skills developed by yogis and fakirs. He went on to demonstrate his skills of palm reading. After studying Geiser’s palm, he said, “You have one brother and four sisters.” Geiser was flabbergasted, because he had hit it exactly. John Smith studied his palm further and told Geiser two more pieces of news, one good and one bad. The good news was “you will live a long time,” whereas the bad news was “Carl, in your old age you will have an affliction. Exactly what it will be I do not know.”
After studying Geiser’s palm, Huddar said, “You have one brother and four sisters.” He had hit it exactly.
Hearing this news, Geiser was very happy, since this meant that he would be able to get out of Franco’s jail alive. The prediction came true. When Geiser was put in front of firing squad, a notice of prisoner exchange came in time to spare his life. Geiser in his sixties was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As forecasted by John Smith, Geiser lived to the ripe old age of 99.
Geiser was released from Franco’s jail, but who would rescue Huddar, a lone Indian prisoner? For Huddar, chances of being freed were very slim. But he had a stroke of good luck.
At that time, the British government was pressured by its people to negotiate with Franco for the release of British prisoners. As a result, a team was dispatched by the British government, among them a retired colonel, whose son was also 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 an Indian from Nagpur and his real name was Gopal Mukund Huddar.
It turned out that the colonel had commanded a regiment at Kamptee cantonment near Nagpur before his retirement. Nostalgic memories made him sympathetic to Huddar. He included Huddar’s name along with other British POWs, enabling Huddar to be freed and return to London.
Huddar was born on June 17, 1902 to a Brahmin family at Mandala in Central India. At age 4 he was brought to Nagpur to a Brahmin widow named Udhoji for adoption. When studying at Nagpur, he stood up to oppose an education policy enforced by the government. In 1920 he became a Student Union leader. Four years later, he received his BA degree from Morris College in India and joined a newly founded secret society named Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organization. The following year, the young Huddar, 23, became its General Secretary.
However, RSS was only interested in Hindu civilization, and could not satisfy Huddar’s revolutionary fervor. He was more interested in taking action to liberate India from British colonial rule. He pursued his clandestine revolutionary activities independent of the RSS. He set up a dacoity with his friends in Balaghat for obtaining weapons and ammunition. He was caught, sentenced and imprisoned by the British Government in 1931. He was released in 1935 from Nagpur jail. By then, he had been sidelined from the core group of RSS.
He joined with a few friends to start publishing Marathi weekly and monthly magazines. It became apparent that he could no longer devote himself exclusively to Hindu nationalism, and he focused instead on how to build a militant mass struggle to break the bondage of British imperialism.
In 1936, with the encouragement and financial support of his friends and a philanthropist from Nagpur, Huddar went to England to study journalism, where he witnessed the powerful international solidarity for the Spanish people’s fight against fascism. Jawaharlal Nehru joined other prominent international figures such as André Malraux, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Irène Joliot-Curie, calling on world citizens to aid the Spanish Republic. The India League collaborated with the Communist Party of Great Britain and other Left organizations to hold meetings and organize marches in support of the Spanish Republic.
Huddar began attending meetings and rallies addressed by Communists and other progressive speakers. His mind further shifted away from RSS’s Hindu nationalism. After much reflection, he realized the paradox of being a good nationalist without also being an internationalist. This logical conclusion led him to join the International Brigades in Spain.
In the International Brigades, Huddar was highly regarded as “very reliable politically.” One month after receiving a heroic welcome in London, he returned to Bombay in 1938, where many union workers gathered at the wharf to greet him with garlands. Several Bombay Unions and the Bombay Congress Socialist Party held a public meeting in his honor. Amid shouts of “Long live Spanish Democracy,” Huddar rose to speak, in fluent Marathi. His speech fired up the crowd:
“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 conveyed similar thoughts in an article “Spain and Ourselves,” suggesting that “Democracy extinguished in Spain, would entail not only the victory of barbarism in Western Europe, but the same weapons will be used for crushing the movement for our own Independence. People determined to gain their own freedom cannot allow the freedom of other people being submerged through the organized butchery of Fascism.”
His experience in the International Brigades and its underlying Marxist philosophy had made a huge impact on him. In 1940, he joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) and began to work for the cause of peasants and laborers in the countryside around Nagpur headquarters. A. B. Bardhan, the general secretary of the CPI recalled that Huddar gave lectures on dialectical and historical materialism in party study groups. On several occasions, Bardhan heard Huddar tell stories of his days in the Spanish Civil War.
Huddar was well-liked by the people in Nagpur. In his political circle, he was called by a nickname Balaji, a name for the Hindu god Venkateswara who dispels human sins. He worked for the Communist Party until 1952. Then he left CPI and gradually withdrew from political activities. Bardhan thought it was because of his declining health and his drifting back to spiritualism. But Huddar always remained a sympathizer and cared deeply about the Communist movement.
In 1972, a colleague of Bardhan visited Berlin. A German veteran of the International Brigades asked him to bring a pendant of the Thälmann Battalion and a badge for Huddar. Bardhan was so delighted to go to Huddar’s home to deliver these presents to him. It is amazing that after more than three decades, this German Brigadier still remembered Huddar.
Nancy Tsou and Len Tsou are the authors of Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España (1936-1939) (Madrid, 2013).
The authors would like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Shailendra Vaidya for providing information from their family files concerning Gopal Mukund Huddar.