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From Indian Nationalism to Anarchism: the Untold Story of M.P.T. Acharya

Biography by Ole Birk Laursen

Is anarchy really chaos? Not according to M.P.T. Acharya - India's renowned anti-colonial anarchist of the early 20th century. A new biography by Lund University researcher Ole Birk Laursen delves into the life and ideology of Acharya, the Indian fight for freedom, and global events that influenced it.

It all started several years ago, as Ole Birk Laursen was conducting research on the Indian freedom movement. His study on the prominent figures of the movement led him to explore the captivating life of M.P.T. Acharya (1887-1954).  

“I wanted to know more. What was the relationship between Indian freedom fighters and anarchists? And how much of an anarchist was Acharya really?”, Laursen says. 

Initially, he was uncertain if there would be sufficient archive material to create a comprehensive biography. But as he delved deeper into his research, realised it was doable. The result is the recently published biography Anarchy or Chaos: M.P.T. Acharya and the Indian Struggle for Freedom – now available throughout Europe, the United States, and India.  

Biography author Ole Birk Laursen
Ole Birk Laursen, Lund University researcher and author of Anarchy or Chaos.

Ole Birk Laursen describes the biography as a mix of an academic book and a popular history novel. It takes readers on a journey through the tumultuous political landscape of India during the fight for freedom and a time period marked by significant global events, including World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Nazi power, the emergence of fascism, and Indian independence. 

"I aimed to understand these major political developments through the lens of Acharya's life", says Ole Birk Laursen. 

M.P.T. Acharya was involved in nationalism from an early age and turned politically active around 1906 and stayed so until his death in the mid-1950s. Today he is regarded India’s most well-known anti-colonial anarchist of the early 20th century.

A significant part of Acharya's life was spent in exile, first in London, where he was involved with India House; an establishment that attracted attention of British authorities as it evolved into a hub for Indian nationalist radicalization. 

“Arriving in London, M.P.T. Acharya was already radical. But he became more so during his stay at India House. He wanted to be a militant revolutionist and took an active part in India’s freedom struggle in exile”, Laursen explains. 

Ole Birk Laursen describes the biography format as an exciting way to tell a story. However, the research and writing process came with several challenges.  

“The most difficult aspect of the writing process has been to tell a story that spans over such a long period of time and still hold it all together”, he says.  

Another difficult aspect of the process has been to read and navigate archive material in several different languages, like German, French, and Russian. Also, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine complicated requests for archive material from Russia.  

As M.P.T. Acharya visited Sweden during the end of the World War I, there are also traces of him in Swedish archives. In collaboration with his comrade Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Acharya published articles in Swedish newspapers Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, and Aftonbladet and engaged with several political figures of the time, including Ellen Key, Hjalmar Branting, and Carl Lindhagen.  

Political figures in Sweden during the early 20th century
Hjalmar Branting, Ellen Key, and Carl Lindhagen - Swedish political figures of the early 20th century, with whom M.P.T. Acharya met.

While in Berlin in the 1920s, M.P.T. Acharya also established connections with Swedish anarchists like John Andersson and Albert Jensen and later on, when he had returned to Bombay, with the Swedish anarchist Bert Ekengren. Throughout the 1920s-50s, Acharya published several articles in the Swedish syndicalist newspaper Arbetaren

In the end, M.P.T. Acharya contributed more to the global anarchist movement than to the national politics of India, Ole Birk Laursen argues. 

“In the 1920s, the anarchist movement was centered around European or American perspectives. Acharya contributed by shifting the focus to the colonies, talking about colonialism and making the Indian struggle for freedom visible”, he says. 

Anarchy or Chaos is not only an attempt to tell the intriguing life story about M.P.T. Acharya, but also to broaden the understanding of anarchism among fellow researchers of anti-colonialism and history of anarchism, adding to theories that still often are European-centered.  

“This book is a way of telling a grand and long story which can help us understand the development of anti-colonial nationalism to anarchism”, the author says. 

The title of the biography originates from M.P.T. Acharya’s view on anarchism, as a solution to the polarized political landscape of the 1930s and the rise of oppressive regimes. 

“Many people think of anarchy as chaos, but Acharya thought the opposite. He argued that ideologies of capitalism, Nazism and fascism were chaos. And the only solution to this was anarchy”, Ole Birk Laursen explains.