Wuhan's forgotten India connections

From MN Roy in early 1900s to PM Narendra Modi in the present times, the city of Wuhan has held a special connect with India and Indians.

 |  9-minute read |   24-08-2020
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A recent viral video of a boisterous pool party has brought the Chinese city of Wuhan once again in the limelight. The vibrant visuals of thousands of Wuhanites floating in inflatable rings, cramming shoulder-to-shoulder, letting their hair down, revelling in a pyro technic-fuelled ambience and cheering with the high-decibel tunes of the techno music by a performing DJ vividly signalled at the lives in the initial epicentre of Covid-19 coming a full circle within a span of eight months. The gaiety of an inexhaustible joie de vivre during the electronic music festival at Maya Beach Water Park instantly overshadowed the deathly gloom that prevailed over the city for months since it was put under a 76-day cordon sanitaire on January 23, 2020.

The provincial capital of Hubei was once described by its most globally renowned daughter of the soil and tennis icon Li Na as “a city that marks the seasons with a furnace-like summer and a freezing winter” in the opening line of the preface of her best-selling memoir, My Life. It was voted the happiest city in China in 2018. 

Interestingly, the premier industrial and educational hub in central China which has more than 90 higher education institutes and the largest number of university students perhaps in any part of the world, cannot be called a city. Technically it is a megapolis, comprising three historical cities — Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. The name “Wuhan” is actually a portmanteau of Wuchang and Hankou — the two cities on the southern and northern banks of the Yangtze river respectively, while the name Hankou — earlier referred to as Hankow — came from the Han river which is a tributary of Yangtze, and ‘kou’ which is the Chinese word for the ‘mouth’ as the city is located at the confluence of the two major rivers. 

Incidentally, the city has got some faint and forgotten Indian connections as well. A few years after the Wuchang Uprising, a young Indian revolutionary — MN Roy — was persuaded by then-exiled (in Japan) Dr Sun Yat-Sen to seal a deal of securing five million dollars from Germany to procure arms and ammunition from the rebels in far-off Yunnan province to overthrow the British regime in India in the presence of the German Consul in the city of Hankou in 1915, after surreptitiously and dramatically sneaking into China from Japan via Korea. The deal, however, did not materialise eventually. Roy subsequently returned to Hankow (or Hankou) a few months later as he took a train from Beijing (the central China city before crossing the mighty Yangtze in a river steamer) to Nanking/Nanjing, en route to Shanghai for his ambitious trans-Pacific voyage to the US in 1916 on a forged French-Indian passport that was provided by the Germans in China. 

main_mn-roy_082420013729.jpgMN Roy (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A decade later, Wuhan was back in the spotlight from the perspective of Chinese history. The Northern Expedition, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek with the help of his National Revolutionary Army (NRA) that was the military arm of the Kuomintang (KMT), decided to merge the cities of Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang to make a new capital for Nationalist China in 1926. On January 1, 1927, the newly amalgamated city of Wuhan got its identity and status as a megacity. The previous year (1926) saw Roy getting back in the city as a mediator, with his Communist International (Comintern) thesis on charting out a future path for the warring KMT factions and their erstwhile allies — the Communists — with his new mission to the politically-fragmented Middle Kingdom. Roy — the founder of the Communist Party of India — stayed put in Wuhan along with fellow Comintern member Mikhail Borodin, as an emissary of Joseph Stalin as the Soviet regime was advising the KMT-Communists alliance during the 1920s. 

It was during his days in Wuhan that Roy met future Chinese President and life-long Chairman Mao for the first time. Mao was then the Chairman of the All-China Federation of Peasant Unions during the decisive Fifth National Plenum or the Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held in the city in May 1927 in the backdrop of the KMT’s Nanjing-Wuhan split in the previous month (April). Roy, who had earlier founded the Communist Party of Mexico in 1919, vividly described that meeting in his memoir, Men I Met: “It was after midnight; we were in the midst of a heated discussion in the politburo of the Communist Party. Borodin himself was present, sitting next to me. A tall man with a swarthy broad face, longish straight hair thrown back on a high forehead, walked in calmly but haughtily. Everybody looked up. Chen Duxiu was speaking to expound once again his famous thesis on broadening and deepening the revolution. He stopped. “Mao Tse-tung,” Borodin whispered in my ear.” 

In his pen-sketch profile of Mao, Roy stuck to “Hankow” instead of the then just-named Wuhan while describing the audacious arrival of the man, who was “not yet counted amongst the top leaders of the Communist Party” and “did not attend the Party Congress.” 

Mao had refused to meet the Indian Communist ideologue, whose largely forgotten legacy in the annals of modern history is predominantly limited to an eponymous wild nightclub in Mexico City at the premise of his erstwhile pad, for the second time on the next day as “he could not live comfortably in Hankow, when the peasant masses were suffering; he must return to Hunan immediately, and demanded a prompt decision”. 

“He left as abruptly as he had come,” Roy wrote penning the imposing speech of “A man who evidently knew what he wanted and was not to be deflected, either by reason or by authority...” 

The rest, as they say, is history. The 715 incident, known by the CPC as the 715 counter-revolutionary coup (because of the date, as the event occurred on July 15), and the Wuhan–Communist split, by the KMT, followed suit on July 15, 1927, and Roy subsequently departed for Moscow by road through Mongolia. 

Meanwhile, the unscheduled power-packed and decisive speech in front of the Comintern bigwigs in Hankou (Wuhan) not only catapulted the so-called “peasant leader” to the top echelon of the CPC, but also set the stage for Mao to eventually become the fulcrum of Communist movements across his country. 

A decade later, another Indian came to close contact of Chairman Mao — then heading the CPC following his historic Long March — after a brief stay in Hankou (Wuhan). Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis was sent to China on a humanitarian mission to provide medical assistance to Chinese soldiers during the second Sino-Japanese war in 1938 after Communist General Zhu De’s request to Jawaharlal Nehru and the wholehearted assistance of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who was the then President of the Indian National Congress (INC). Dr Kotnis was accompanied by Dr M Atal, Dr BK Basu, Dr M Cholkar and Dr D Mukherji. Jawaharlal Nehru had made arrangements to send the team of volunteering doctors and an ambulance after collecting a fund of Rs 22,000. The team landed at the port of Hankou after embarking on China by the ship SS Rajputana, in 1938.

Following his yeomen services in war-ravaged Wuhan, Dr Kotnis proceeded to Yan’an, the then-revolutionary base of Communists, led by Mao, in 1939. The supreme commander of the Red Army, whose CPC had temporarily allied with the KMT under the United Front at that time, whole-heartedly welcomed the Indian physician and his team — the first medical team to arrive in China from another Asian country — in the city in Shaanxi province along with Zhu De and other top leaders of the CPC. Kotnis later joined Mao’s Eighth Route Army at the Jin-Cha-Ji border near the Wutai Mountain Area, providing medical service in mobile clinics. The camaraderie between the Indian doctor from Solapur (Maharashtra) and the Red Army chief grew stronger before the former’s untimely death in 1942. 

Subsequently, Mao went on to lead the party to absolute power with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and became its Chairman. Years later, the cataclysmic failure of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and the consequent Great Famine or the “Three years of famine” were showing tell-all signs of vulnerability in his invincible status. The Great Helmsman then relaunched himself in the city of Wuhan to consolidate his iron-grip on the Party and the country for almost a decade on a sultry summer morning of July 16, 1966. A vigorous Mao’s swim setting a world record, surrounded by six swimming bodyguards from the 8341 Special Regiment, accompanied by floating giant portraits of himself was greeted by placards wishing 10,000 years of life for him, followed by 5,000-odd other enthusiastic swimmers. This was vociferously cheered by his aides and acolytes, including the rampaging Red Guards, transforming it into an extraordinary spectacle.

Wuhan continued to play a definitive and decisive role in different stages of Mao’s paragon political life and the city remained close to his heart. His favourite abode outside Zhongnanhai was the villa — Meiling — located at the picturesque bank of East Lake of Wuchang, and comprised three aesthetically ornamented buildings in a scenic compound with tree-lined footpath, dense grove, chirping songbirds, his favourite pines, bamboo trees and plums. It was at the serene Meiling where the leader famously hosted the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the then US President Richard Nixon in 1972, marking the logical end to the calamitous Culture Revolution to some extent.

main_wuhan-summit-20_082420013858.jpgModi and Jinping at Wuhan Summit in 2018. (Photo: PIB)

But many decades later, there was another head of state whose visit to the villa brought the city under the global geopolitical spotlight, as Narendra Modi disembarked in Wuhan for his much-publicised ‘heart-to-heart’ summit with Xi Jinping — arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao — in 2018. The right-wing Indian Prime Minister Modi’s goodwill visit to the city, where a contrastingly and ideologically opposite left-wing Roy had met Mao almost 80 years ago, hogged the limelight across global media, especially since the informal summit coming close on the heels of the previous year’s 73-day-long Doklam standoff which ended after much negotiation in September.

It was Modi’s second visit to the central China city as he earlier had a stopover in Wuhan during his sojourn to the nearby Three Gorges Dam during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in November 2006. However, the two-day interactions with Xi in 2018 was historic in many senses. There could not have been a better meeting place of the two powerful leaders than a city that has been time-tested for centuries. Its cock-a-hoop citizens hardly had any inkling about how a menacing microscopic agent would not only transform their beloved city into a massive necropolis, but would go on to infect almost every nation on earth and bring the whole world to a standstill within a span of a few months. But the city has once again risen like a phoenix from the ashes.

Also Read: Why Modi's China visit is incredibly significant

Writer

Suvam Pal Suvam Pal @suvvz

The writer is a Beijing-based media professional, author and documentary filmmaker.

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