Passports, Citizenship, and the (Im)possibility of Return : The Indian Revolutionary M. P. T. Acharya in German Archives

Throughout his almost twenty-seven years in exile, the Indian revolutionary Mandayam Prativadi Bhayankaram Tirumal “M. P. T.” Acharya (1887–1954) travelled from India to Britain in 1908, to Portugal, France, Germany, Turkey, and the United States from 1909 to 1914, to Germany, the Middle East, and Sweden during the First World War, and to Russia in 1919. He then spent twelve years in Berlin from 1922 to 1934, before he escaped Nazi Germany, living underground in Switzerland and France, and finally returned to India in 1935.

Like so many Asian anti-colonialists of his generation, Acharya lived an itinerant revolutionary life in exile (Harper, 2021: 50–51). At a time of great transnational anticolonial activity, throughout war and revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, to travel across several continents and crossing borders was no easy task. This has also made it difficult for historians to provide a comprehensive account of Acharya’s life (Subramanyam, 1995). Based on my biography of Acharya (Laursen, forthcoming), in this essay I reflect on archival traces of this wandering revolutionary through passports and the issue of citizenship. As John Torpey argues, passports have been central to states’ “ability to ‘embrace’ their own subjects and to make distinctions between nationals and non-nationals, and to track the movements of persons in order to sustain the boundary between these two groups (whether at the border or not)” (Torpey, 2018: 2). What is more, as Radhika Mongia makes clear in relation to Indian migration, exile, and empire, the modern passport emerged “through the articulation of nation, race, and state” and, in doing so, was crucial to defining these categories in the early twentieth century (Mongia, 2018: 112).

During his time in exile, Acharya spent considerable time in Germany (1910–1911, 1922–1934) and under German protection (1914–1919), which has left several traces of him in the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts (PA AA). In fact, in exploring his wandering life, it is informative to read files from the PA AA in conjunction with India Office Records (IOR), held in the British Library, London, files from the National Archives of India (NAI) as well as files from the North American Records Administration (NARA) to fully understand the complexities of exiled anticolonial lives and the (im)possibility of return to India. Indeed, focusing on the role of passports, the files on Acharya in the PA AA reveal a great deal about the embrace of state authority and citizenship as well as, conversely, how they evaded and subverted the watchful eyes of colonial authorities.



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