Peripatetic Slaves of Mammon: Lala Har Dayal on the Indian Spies in Early 20th Century America

The polymath scholar and intrepid revolutionary, Lala Har Dayal provides a little-known account of his firsthand experiences with Indian spies of the colonial British Government who tried to infiltrate the Hindu community in America in the early 20th Century.
Peripatetic Slaves of Mammon: Lala Har Dayal on the Indian Spies in Early 20th Century America


LALA HAR DAYAL MATHUR is a largely forgotten name in the annals of eminent Indian freedom fighters. He stands tallest among the expatriate stalwarts who fought for India’s independence and singlehandedly inspired countless Indians in the US and Canada by the sheer dint of his erudition, force of personality and frugal living. A polymath and a fierce patriot, he chucked aside a lucrative career in the Indian Civil Service and opted to fight against the very power that created the Civil Service.

A little-known nugget in the substantial body of Har Dayal’s literary work is a highly perceptive essay that he authored on April 28, 1911, almost as soon as he landed in America. Running into ten printed pages, it makes for compelling reading for anyone who wants to understand the psyche of the Hindu community residing abroad. What is today known as the global Hindu diaspora lived in vastly different conditions in the colonial times, and there was no continent in which Hindus were not present as a community. Some Hindu communities had a continuous residence abroad—for example, in the Middle East—predating the European colonisation era. With the British colonisation of India, these communities broadly fell into these groups: (1) indentured labour forcibly migrated to say Sri Lanka and South East Asia, Fiji, West Indies, etc. (2) Professionals who migrated to Europe and North America (3) Political workers, freedom fighters, activists, etc (4) the Hindu business class (5) Students (6) Spies.

Lala Har Dayal describes the conditions, attitudes and the psyche of four broad categories of these expatriate Hindus living in America. Of these, I have provided a highly illustrative excerpt from his observations about… Indian spies who frequently tried to infiltrate the Hindu community in the US. Spies as such capture the public imagination only for their thrill-value, embellished and exaggerated by novels and films. It is perhaps as it should be given the nature of their profession.

But the Indian spies that Har Dayal describes were of the treacherous sort. They were Indians employed by the British Government for the specific purpose of keeping a hawk-eye on activities they deemed seditious against their oppression of India. Har Dayal’s portrayal is rather deliciously brutal.

The excerpts from his essay are unabridged except for minor editorial changes.

Read on!

“Out of the East, Light.”

VERY FEW READERS… can have a correct idea of the noble work which is being silently accomplished by the sons of Bharatvarsha under the hospitable Stars and Stripes. America is known to the average Indian as the country of Washington and Emerson and of negro-lynchings. The name of Swami Vivekananda may be associated in the minds of a large class of spiritually inclined youths with their mental image of America. But very few possess an adequate notion of the good that is being done to the cause of India by the few Hindus who live scattered on this vast continent in small groups.

I propose to record my impressions of the actual achievements of the Hindus here and of the greater possibilities that are in store for them in future. America is perhaps the only country in the world from which a solitary wandering Hindu can send a message of hope and encouragement to his countrymen.

As the little child loves to play on the knees of his grandpapa, so this youngest representative of modern civilisation, this newborn nation which has not yet passed out of the adolescent stage, delights in thinking of India, the hoary mother of the most ancient civilisations of the world.

In all other countries, India is known as a very fertile country which serves to enrich the British people. The Hindus are perhaps pitied and commiserated; but they are nowhere liked, still less loved or admired. Under the Union Jack, they have no status, as they are servants in the house. An Englishman never forgets that a Hindu is his “fellow-subject.” In English colonies, they are feared on economic grounds, and persecuted and humiliated for many other reasons.

The French do not trouble themselves much about India. India retains a place in their consciousness only as a country which they unluckily lost to England, and “the loss of India” still forms the heading of several paragraphs in the text-books of history taught in French schools. The French see very few Hindus, except perhaps the porters at Marseilles, who have reason to praise the generosity of Hindu travellers rushing through their country under the guidance of Cook’s earthly providence only to reach London as quickly as possible. The inability of the large majority of our people to understand French is another barrier between India and France, for no one can expect the French to learn Hindi in order to know us better.

The Germans have learned to admire Hindu genius through Sanskrit literature, and I was surprised to find that a young man of no high educational attainments had read Sakuntala in translation. But the Germans seldom see a living Hindu at close quarters. There are only a few Hindu students and merchants in some towns. The educated classes certainly take a keen interest in India from political motives.

It is high time that representative Hindus should master the principal European languages, so that their travels may not be confined to the London-Bombay route alone.

IN AMERICA, THE ENTIRE PROSPECT CHANGES. America has very little commercial or political interest in India. She is not thinking of our cotton or of the Bagdad Railway, she does not figure India to herself as the paradise of freebooters from Mahmud downwards, or as the Mecca of over-swollen capitalists like the Lancashire manufacturers. The bond which unites her to us is made of finer stuff than the iron of politics or the gold of commerce.

Contrast Between Indians in England and the US

Here I may mention that there is a strange contrast between Indian life in England and in the United States. The Indians who reside in England for study, health, place-hunting, pleasure or political charlatanism do not for the most part represent the best elements in our society.

In America, on the contrary, Indian society is composed of the best elements of the population of the mother country. We have no idle aristocrats, or hungry graduates longing for official favour, or professional politicians combining patriotism with a due measure of regard for the security of their sacred persons and the condition of their depleted purses. India sends her best sons to America.

Four Classes of Hindus in America

We have to deal in America with four classes of persons, three of which are worthy of a sympathetic examination, while the fourth is the passing shadow cast by these three…

The normal components of Indian society in America are the Sikhs, the Swamis and the Students, with the Spies as an abnormal gang. These four classes…constitute the Hindu population in America. The Americans call everything that appertains to India by the name “Hindu”: e.g., Hindu music, the Hindu alphabet, Hindu politics, etc., etc.

The Spies

I had better dispose of the spies first so as to have my hands free for the other classes. These peripatetic slaves of mammon sometimes visit our small colonies on a friendly mission, and try to find out secrets which do not exist and to report against individuals whom their errant fancy may pick out for its favourite objects of preoccupation.

These worthy gentlemen may be compared to the comets of the sky, while the other classes form the regular members of our solar system out here. They portend evil whenever they appear. Their moral substance is so tenuous that every one can see through it without any difficulty. These people do not find much scope for their ingenuity in this country, for the vast majority of Indians here have no time for the shallow noisy variety of politics, which forms the raison d’etre of their existence.

The Hindus in America are practical and poor, battling with adverse circumstances, and wish to serve their country through solid achievement and silent resolve rather than, by tall talk and empty bluff.

So the meddlesome spy finds himself blinded by the light which permeates every nook and corner of Hindu society here, for, like the mole and the bat, he can work only in darkness. He finds his occupation gone in such a healthy and transparent atmosphere of steady work and sincere aspiration as prevails among the Hindus of America. Our people here realise that it is the foolish patriot who brings grist to the detective’s mill and that the best antidote to the poison of espionage consists in the maintenance of a clean and bright social atmosphere in which these pests are choked and killed as surely as germs are destroyed by sunshine.

And yet no Hindu group in any part of the world can be altogether free from occasional visits of these amiable enthusiasts for Indian freedom, for they always pose as the most fervent disciples of the most advanced schools of politics.

People say that one of the spies, who recently visited this country, pretended as a sannyasi, but these persons can never conceal their real identity from experienced eyes anymore than a decaying corpse can fail to reveal its presence in a house to the sense of smell of the inmates. Young men here are frank and outspoken, and the spies are checkmated by this very feature in their character. There is nothing left for them to discover. We do not try to outwit them here: we bewilder them by the self-evident sincerity of our utterances.

If every spy should communicate to the India Office the purport of what he has heard from Hindus living here, the Government would find itself in possession of a fine set of homilies on the value of unity. Or on the importance of industrial progress, the greatness of the American people, the blessings of democracy, the honourableness of manual labour, the meanness of Theodore Roosevelt and the necessity of education, liberal and technical, for the uplifting of the people of India. These unsensational topics would form the subject matter of the conversation of our students and workmen as reported by a faithful and intelligent spy.

For the rest, the Hindus here are too much engrossed in the struggle of life to have much time for real patriotic work. Students who work four or five hours every day as house-assistants or labourers and attend the university lectures for 8 hours or more can have no surplus of energy for other activities. Education and character building are their chief aims, and that is quite right and proper. We can wait for the fruition of their ideas and ideals till they become masters of themselves.

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