Indian Communists in Freedom Movement: Yesterday and Today

(Talk given by Arindam Sen at Bhilai on 7 August 05)


Yes friends, I do believe our struggle for independence is far from over. In what sense, I'll tell you towards the end of the discussion. For now, I'll dwell on the role of communists in our freedom movement up to 1947. Let us first confront and settle a couple of questions our adversaries often level against us. Were the first Indian communists Russian agents out to disrupt the national movement? And is communism an alien and imported ideology that never struck roots in the soil of Hindustan - and never will?

These questions bring us to an examination of the genesis of communism in India .

Early years of communist intervention

Let us start from facts - recorded facts.

"The downfall of Tsardom has ushered in the age of destruction of alien bureaucracy in India too", commented the Dainik Basumati, then a leading nationalist daily from Calcutta, just ten days after the event. "Our hour is approaching, India too shall be free. But sons of India must stand up for right and justice, as the Russian did" – declared the Home Rule League's pamphlet Lesson From Russia, published from Madras in late 1917. And so on and so forth, exclaimed the exuberant Indian nationalists, finding a new inspiration, a new path in the great November revolution. It was from among them that the first batch of Indian Communists emerged. They came mainly from two backgrounds: (a) the Congress mainstream, e.g. SA Dange of Bombay, Singaravelu M Chettiar of Madras etc.; and (b) national revolutionary organisations, e.g. MN Roy who had been a responsible cadre of Anushilan Samity and Yugantar, Virendranath Chattopadhyay and Bhupendranath Dutta (younger brother of Narendranath Dutta, better known as Swami Vivekananda), both leading members of the "Berlin Committee", Ghadarites operating from the USA, such as Ratan Singh and Santokh Singh and so on. Many who were serving the nationalist cause in other ways also played a pioneering role, such as Muzaffar Ahmed of Calcutta, then a co-editor of the literary-political magazine Navyug (the other editor was the revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam), and Ghulam Hussain, a professor from Peshawar who become a whole time TU organiser.

The process continued, and in the mid-1930s AK Gopalan, EMS Namboodiripad, P. Sundaraya, Saijad Zaheer and others came over to the CPI from the socialist wing of the Congress known as the Congress Socialist Party (CSP). A few years earlier Bhagat Singh's transition from petty bourgeois revolutionism to revolutionary Marxism had been stopped short by his martyrdom (the last book he re-read before going to the gallows was Lenin's What Is To Be Done?). But practically all his surviving colleagues including the young Ajoy Ghosh joined the party; so did most of Surya Sen's comrades after the Chittagong uprising.

Now for the second question.

Communism, like concepts of modern nation state, representative democracy and modernism in general, is no doubt of European origin. But in scope and orientation it was, and will always be, a universal ideology. In the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, when freedom fighters in India and other backward countries like China and Vietnam were looking beyond their national frontiers for the correct path, Marxism too was developing beyond its initial European paradigm to embrace the conditions of those colonial and semi-colonial countries. Marx had left behind some deep insights on the conditions and revolutionary potentials of these countries including India , but it was Lenin who played the key role in this evolution. In a series of articles and pamphlets like Backward Europe and Advanced Asia (1913) and Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), he gradually developed a holistic vision of national liberation struggles as an integral part of international socialist revolution. The theory was enriched in the Second World Congress (1920) of the Comintern (Communist International or CI) with active involvement of emerging communists from backward countries, most notably MN Roy. Roy 's cooperation and comradely controversy with Lenin produced the famous co-documents known as "Colonial Theses" and "Supplementary Theses", and these laid a foundation on which the communists in India developed, brick by brick, their theory of Indian revolution.

These two processes – an advanced section of nationalists reaching out for Marxist theory and the latter developing into an inspiration and guide to the national liberation movement across the globe – were fused into a real movement only when the internal conditions got ripened. That happened in 1922-23, when in a matter of just one year all the four early communist groups of our country sprang up in the four major industrial cities of Calcutta , Bombay , Madras and Lahore . They emerged locally without any interconnections or any grand plan, and came together in the founding conference of the CPI held in the industrial city of Kanpur on 25-28 October 1925. Here it should be mentioned that a "CPI" in exile was formed in Russia in 1920-21, but having no roots in the masses of India , this event remained just a footnote in the annals of communist movement of our country.

Now what was so special about the period starting with mid-1922, which saw a sudden spurt in organised communist activity? It was in 1922 that Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement at its peak. This generated in all nationalist circles angry debates and a search for an alternative path, for a way out of the leadership crisis, and the quest led the most radical freedom fighters to the crimson path heralding a new dawn on earth, as we have noted above.

At a particular confluence of national and international factors was thus born, on the soil of India , the communist wing of the national liberation movement. The great hallmark of this radical alternative to Gandhism was that from the very outset it strove to combine the twin tasks of national liberation from imperialist yoke and social liberation of the toiling masses from feudal and capitalist exploitation and oppression.

That the British rulers recognised communists as their most dangerous enemies was evident from a series of conspiracy cases - Peshawar , Kanpur , Meerut and others - hatched against them during 1920s and early 1930s. The most famous was the last named. Panicked at the high tide in workers' struggles, rapid spread of WPPs, (see below) the revival of mass anti- imperialist movement provoked by the Simon Commission, the revolutionary activities of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, and the coming closer of communists and a section of the nationalist leadership, the government struck back in 1929 with a chain of repressive measures. Most important among these were: the Meerut conspiracy case, the Public Safety Bill and Trade Disputes Bill, and the prosecution of and death sentences to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. In March 1929, 31 labour leaders (including 3 Englishmen) from Calcutta , Bombay , and other parts of the country were rounded up. They were brought to Meerut for the conspiracy case. The accused communists made very good use of the courtroom for the spread of their ideology, aims and objectives. The British move to drive a wedge between communists and nationalist leaders also proved futile. Nehru, Gandhi and many others visited the Meerut jail while the accused communists also sent messages to the satyagrahis in different jails supporting their just struggles for political status. From the dock communists vigorously exposed the bankruptcy and hypocrisy of British rule in India and their 'civilised' legal system. Not only did workers all over the world launch agitations against the trial and conviction, even men like Romain Rolland and Prof. Albert Einstein raised their voices in protest against the trial.

The Workers' and Peasants' Party (WPP), a sort of people's party, was organised jointly by communists and other revolutionary democrats and utilised by the former as a means of circumventing police restrictions on communist activities and as a united front organ. It sprang up in different provinces under different names, but generally as left blocks within the Congress. The different provincial WPPs were brought under a common platform and common name and knit into an all-India party in 1928. The party witnessed very rapid expansion. But all propaganda and agitation began to be conducted in the name of WPP. For all practical purposes the communist party was becoming an appendage of its own creation – the WPP and, in the process, getting politically assimilated in the Congress. The need of the hour was to fight out this liquidationist danger, re-emphasise the primacy and ideological purity of the communist party, and to continue the WPP as a broad democratic, anti- imperialism platform and a legal cover for the underground party. Unfortunately, such higher experimentation was not taken up. The CPI dissolved the WPP in 1929, and under the influence of the Comintern, entered upon a five-year phase of 'left' sectarianism. During this period, the CPI attacked the Congress as a whole, and its left leaning leaders in particular (Bose and Nehru), as deceivers of the masses and traitors to the national cause. But this was not counterbalanced by the other aspect of the Comintern guideline – building a revolutionary peasant struggle. In effect, the party got itself largely isolated from the mainstream of national movement even as it failed to expand its mass base beyond a section of the working class.

Before and During WW I

By the year 1935, however, the CI changed its line and the CPI, ideologically and organisationally much consolidated than before, plunged once again into the mainstream of freedom movement. The communists started joining the Congress and the Congress Socialist Party (wherever the latter had its units) on individual basis. Through the CSP the communists also secured, by 1939, as many as 20 seats in the AICC and many leadership posts at provincial levels.

With war clouds gathering overhead, the CPI in early 1938 came up with a "Peace Policy" for India and opposed the British campaign for army recruitment with the slogan:

Yeh jung samrajyashahi – Hum na denge ek pai na ek bhai.

Within about a month, the party organised the world's first anti-war strike in Bombay involving some 89000 textile workers and several thousand workers in match and leather factories, hotels etc. A 30,000 strong rally was also organised in Nagpur . In October itself, the Politburo in a policy statement called for "revolutionary utilisation of the war crisis for the achievement of National Freedom", i.e., for "transformation of imperialist war into a war of national liberation". This they sought to achieve by intensifying mass actions of workers and peasants and by "break[ing] through the shackles of Gandhian technique".

By contrast, the Congress adopted a bargaining posture: offering support to belligerent Britain in return for immediate election of a responsible central government and promise of a constituent assembly for independent India after the war. At the Wardha and Ramgarh sessions (October '39 and March '40), communist members of the AICC such as Somnath Lahiri tried to make the Congress adopt a movemental course, but in vain.

The war situation saw a large-scale spurt in militant peasant struggles, with the communists playing a lead role in some of them. They also organised "hunger marches" and other militant activities of the rural poor in several parts of Madras province, Andhra, Malabar, Bengal etc., where traders and zamindars were forced to provide grain to the hungry either free or at "fair price". The most well known among the peasant struggles of the early war years took place in Kayyur and adjacent areas of Malabar. Four policemen and two Kisan activists died in separate clashes on and immediately after 15 September 1940 , the anti-repression day. The struggle against illegal evictions, forcible extractions, hiked rent etc. had been going on for some time, which led to the arrest of several communist organisers on 25-26 March 1941. On the protest day (28 March), enraged peasants killed two policemen. Beastly repression followed, four of the arrested were sentenced to death and 16 to life imprisonment. The communist peasant heroes embraced martyrdom on 29 March 1943 , crying out "Down with fascism! Down with imperialism! Long live the Communist Party of India!"

Kayyur thus emerged as a glorious symbol of peasant militancy that was clearly anti-feudal and anti-imperialist at the same time, with the lowest rungs of the rural people playing a frontal role. Thus for full two years since the outbreak of World War II, the CPI conducted anti-war, anti-British agitation with increasing militancy. Particularly commendable was its leading role in intensifying workers' struggles against spiraling prices and on political issues. But all along, the party laboured under a fatalist ideology of helpless dependence on the Congress. The deep-rooted belief was that "the movement for freedom can acquire national dimensions and be really effective only when it is led by the Congress" – as a late 1939 PB statement had it. The reason cited was that, given the party's small organisation, it was not possible to "break through the stalemate by ourselves issuing a `call' for nationwide direct action..."Thus, nationwide action backed by an all-India organisation (which only the Congress possessed) was considered to be the only available course. That there could be another option - one of area wise consolidation and planned expansion of the party's political base among basic masses – never occurred to the party leaders. Nor did they have the courage of conviction that this way a small force could rapidly grow into a big one in the given favourable situation. The party therefore virtually surrendered its claim to leadership in the freedom movement without a fight.

The ideological defeatism was, of course, sought to be covered up with all kinds of phraseology. Thus the above-mentioned PB statement asserted that "the proletarian hegemony in the national anti-war movement has to be achieved not outside and independent of the Congress, but through it..." Proletarian hegemony depending upon the Congress! And that too at a time of open and obvious rightist consolidation in the Congress leadership! Curiously enough, communist leaders nurtured an illusion about the Congress even as they recognised that "with the growing explosiveness of the situation, the national leadership will grow more and more anti-struggle, its tactics will grow more and more disruptive of national unity"!

Don't you find a striking similarity here with the current political positions of the CPI and CPI(M) ? Well, such verbal critique of the bourgeois leadership actually served to camouflage the actual political tailism of the communist leadership, as they do now. As for the Congress, the communist obsession for unity was not at all shared by it. The provincial Congress ministries of 1937-39 suppressed workers' and peasants' movements to the full satisfaction of the British authorities. During 1939-41, thus, the CPI line was characterised by militant anti-imperialism mixed up with dependence on the Congress for unleashing a nationwide movement. But the situation changed drastically with the German aggression on the Soviet Union (SU) in June 1941.

For full five months after the attack on SU, the party maintained that "the only way in which the Indian people can help the just war which the Soviet people are waging, is by fighting all the more vigorously for their own emancipation from the imperialist yoke... We can render really effective aid to the Soviet Union only as a free people." Premised on the understanding that "the relation between India and Britain does not change", this position propagated by General Secretary PC Joshi and other underground leaders like Namboodripad, Adhikari and Sundarayya sought to combine the national and international tasks and reflected the people's mood. But several other leaders confined in Deoli jail such as Dange, Ahmad and Ranadive, who were the first to receive a CI directive for a change of tack, argued that Indians should support the British war efforts in defence of the SU. After a bitter inner-party struggle, by end of 1941, the CPI finally adopted the People's War line.

Big blunder of 1942

Consistent with the one-sided and erroneous People's War line, the party opposed the Quit India Movement (QIM) in 1942. Here it is necessary to note that this movement was not intended for a real headlong clash with the Raj, but as a pressure-tactic to persuade the latter, already threatened by the advancing Japanese, to negotiate transfer of power to the exclusion of the Muslim League. This is why, in the words of Nehru in Discovery Of India, "neither he [Gandhi-A.S.] nor the CWC issued any kind of directives..." and made "no arrangements for the functioning of the Congress after they had been removed from the scene". According to S. Gopal, the biographer of Jawaharlal Nehru, "It was almost as if the Working Committee wished to escape to prison and to avoid decision" at the crucial hour. But after the arrest of Gandhi and others, precisely because there was no leader left free to check the spontaneous popular upsurge, soon the QIM became, in the words of Lord Linlithgow, "by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security" (Cable to Churchill). From behind the bars, of course, MK Gandhi repeatedly condemned the 'violence', asked the militants including Congressmen to "surrender to the police" and continued the efforts to restore goodwill with the Raj through emissaries like GD Birla. Both the Muslim League and the RSS-Hindu Mahasabha (HM) denounced the movement in most savage terms, with leaders of the HM such as Shymaprasad Mukherjee, participating in the repression as members of provincial ministries.

Whatever the role of Gandhi and others, the CPI no doubt committed a major mistake by opposing the QIM. As the Second Party Congress held in February 1948 pointed out, "This total underestimation of the role of imperialism in the period of People's War made us lose sight of the task of exposing imperialism and fighting it within the framework of support for anti-fascist war".

But this was too little too late. Even if there was some theoretical justification for the initial opposition to the Quit India resolution of the Gandhiites, subsequently the party leaders should have grasped the revolutionary potential of the anti-British upsurge and come forward to lead it while simultaneously carrying on anti-fascist agitation and preparations against Japanese aggression. At least after the Soviet victory in Stalingrad , the party should have abandoned its exclusive anti-fascism and reincorporated anti-imperialism in its line of action. But that was not to be. Mao Zedong's friendly message to the CPI CC, dated 5 April 1943 , fell on deaf ears:

"We believe that under the concerted efforts of the Communist Party of India and the Indian people, a way will certainly be found out of the present difficult situation so that both the objects – to vanquish Fascism and strive for Indian independence – will be attained."

In the absence of the dialectical approach and political flexibility required for such readjustment of policy, the CPI stuck to the erroneous PW line till the end of war. We the Indian communists do make unconditional self-criticism for the blunder, but here it must be pointed out that allegations of communists acting as police agents or accepting money from the British during the PW phase are absolutely baseless. On the contrary, the government released the communist prisoners and granted legal status to the CPI (in July '42) with much hesitation and reluctance; even in August-September – at the height of PW activism, that is – the official assessment was that "It is primarily a nationalist party working for Indian independence... It is clearly impossible to expect communists to adopt a wholly loyalist attitude..." It was also noted that "they profess to be averse to the acceptance of financial or other assistance from government in their pro-war campaign and they seem determined not to submit to official control or direction in any sphere of their activity..."

Secondly, mistakes notwithstanding, the PW phase was a period of wholesome growth for the CPI. The party put to good use its first ever opportunity to work legally and recovered much of its lost goodwill through dedicated relief work for the Bengal famine in and after 1943. It set up or expanded the frontal organisations among women, students, workers, peasants and most notably among art-and-literature activists. The IPTA, launched in May 1943, attracted a veritable galaxy of talents like Salil Chaudhury, Debabrata Biswas, Sambhu Mitra, Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azami, KA Abbas, and so on. Literary figures like Manik Bandopadhyaya, Sukanta Bhattacharya, Bishnu De, Samar Sen joined or became close friends of the communist party. All this bears testimony to the trust and respect enlightened Indians reposed in the party for its honest courage to move against the tide with a noble ideal (in this case the internationalist duty of saving human civilisation from fascism) and its glorious track record of sacrifices in the cause of the motherland.

During the Post-War Upsurge

The years 1945 - 1947 saw a veritable popular uprising against British rule in India , even as the Congress and the Muslim League were busy negotiating with the Raj a mutually acceptable scheme for transfer of power. Communists played undoubtedly the most prominent role in this upsurge. The Tebhaga, Punnapura-Vayalar and Telangana uprisings organised by them are so well known that we hardly need details here. No less active were the party's TU and student wings and in many cases they came forward as ardent champions of militant communal unity against imperialism. Thus in November 1945, Calcutta saw students, tram workers, municipal employees and others under communist influence joining followers of FB (which was remarkable in view of prolonged CPI-FB clashes over the assessment of Subhas Bose) and Muslim League in a trend-setting city upheaval against the INA trails. The militant political and communal unity was soon to be experienced again in February next year when Calcutta exploded against the seven-year rigorous imprisonment meted out to Abdul Rashid of the INA. Barely five months after the August 1946 riots in Calcutta , Hindu and Muslim tram workers united under communist leadership to launch a successful 85-day strike. The day of launching the strike, that is 21 January 1947 , Calcutta saw the communist-led "Hands off Vietnam " demonstration by students against the use of Dum Dum airport by French warplanes. During the great RIN mutiny, the CPI, with the cooperation of the CSP, called a solidarity hartal in Bombay on 22 February 1946 . Despite opposition from both the Congress and the Muslim League, the strike accompanied by barricade fights was highly successful, and could be crushed by the army only at the cost of hundreds of casualties on both sides.

All these fine episodes, however, suffered from one fundamental weakness. They were isolated initiatives taken by local cadres and ranks, with the central leadership doing nothing to plan, execute or coordinate them on an all-India plane. The party headquarters, advantageously situated in Bombay , never tried to lead the RIN mutiny although the rebellious ratings were quite eager for that. Nor did it have any plans to spread and heighten the demonstrations against INA trials taking place in different parts of the country. The all-India leadership hardly tried to guide Tebhaga and Punnapura-Vayalar struggles from a primarily economic plane to a higher political plane; in Telangana the Central Committee's intervention was belated, confused and largely negative. In a situation variously described as "the edge of a volcano", "almost revolution" and so on, the CPI leadership was thus running after the events. There was no political resolve to combine all these revolutionary currents - with the peasant rebellions as the axis - into a concerted all-India upsurge for overthrowing the British imperialists and Indian reactionaries.

That the party's point of departure was not proletarian political independence but petty bourgeois reformist tailism, becomes self-evident when one takes a look at the documents of this period. The June 1947 resolution entitled "Mountbatten Award and After", for instance, made a correct assessment of the award, noting that it was "the culmination of a double-faced imperial policy which while making concession to the national demand to transfer power, sets in motion disruptive and reactionary forces to disrupt the popular upsurge, obstruct the realization of real independence, throttle the growth of democracy and destroy the unity and integrity of India." And yet, the partners in this conspiracy, the Congress and the Muslim League, were eulogised as "national leadership", and later on, all support was pledged to the governments run by these parties.

This sort of critical tailism was one of the two fundamental reasons why the Indian communists, for all their sacrifices, failed to establish leadership over our freedom movement and carry it to consummation; the other being the lack of serious, sustained, painstaking effort to build revolutionary peasant struggles as the mainstay of freedom movement, as the bulwark of proletarian hegemony over the Indian struggle for independence.

Communists in the Second Freedom Movement

The net result of this crucial failure was that the hard won harvest of people's prolonged battles was highjacked by vested interests masquerading as liberators and on 15 August 1947 a divided India became not a truly independent but only a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country. The struggle for real liberation from foreign and domestic exploitation and oppression continued, albeit on a new plane. Since early 1990s, it has reached a particularly intense phase in the Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation (LPG) environment, rendered all the more complicated by hard and 'soft' communalisms.

What role are communists playing in this struggle?

Communists no longer belong to a single party: the tailist-opportunist tendency and the dynamic-revolutionary tendency within the undivided CPI have since crystalised into social democratic and revolutionary communist wings respectively. The former has earned the trust of the ruling classes and emerged as natural rulers in three States; at the national level it supports a Congress-led Government that is selling out our (residual) economic, political and military (witness the recent Indo-US military pact) sovereignty and presiding over systematic repression on workers, peasants and others who dare to fight back. The latter, a small force reflecting the unfavourable balance of class forces at national and international levels, is growing independently with people' struggles and striving for a broader mobilisation of forces, under the banner of Left Confederation, in the movement for total emancipation. Such in barest outline are the dialectics and dynamics of communist role in the second freedom movement. Even as the debate between the two wings continues, come let us all unite in this great struggle. On the morrow of the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima Day, which our party has celebrated as anti-imperialist day, and on the eve of 9th August, the Quit India Day, let us roar out in one voice:

Imperialist powers and lackeys quit India !

Annul the Indo-US military pact!

Forward to Freedom, Democracy, Socialism!