By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932)
The Indian revolutionaries and Muhajirs arriving in Russia in 1920 from different directions played a major role in forming the first Communist Party of India. They had different ideas and had taken different paths to reach to this point where by a quirk of history they met and converged together in Tashkent to acquire a new organisational structure. In all, there were about 200 of Indian Muhajirs-Mujahidin who had crossed over into Soviet Russia from the Afghan border in the autumn of 1920. A number of Indians, mostly from trading castes from Gujarat and Sindh, were already living in the Central Asia, having fairly old business relations and interests in the region. They were living in major Central Asian towns like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Baku. While Indian Muhajirs were still in Baku a report was published in local newspapers about Rehmat Ali Zakaria (one of the Lahore students camped at Jabalul Siraj) addressing the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union at Tashkent. Zakaria was one of the first few who had reached the Soviet Union in Nov 1917. According to the newspapers, he had presented the case of India’s independence from the British rule to the Congress in Tashkent. Another Lahore student Khushi Mohammad had also reached Tashkent from Afghanistan in Jan 1920.
Life in Tashkent
The first group of Indian Muhajirs from Charjui reached Tashkent in Oct 1920. Abdul Rab of the former Berlin Committee who was already in Russia together with Acharya since about 1919 received them and arranged for their stay at the ‘India House’. The second group from Baku, including Fazal Elahi Qurban, arrived in Tashkent via Ashkabad and Samarkand. In Tashkent, Abdul Rab had formed an Indian Revolutionary Association (1). Abdul Rab was also bringing out a fortnightly paper under the name of Azad Hindustan. Most members of the association were Punjabi and Pathan soldiers who had deserted the British army after refusing to fire upon the Muslim Turkish army.
About 70 Muhajirs arriving in Tashkent had divided opinion. A few, exhausted and losing all hopes, wished to return home. About 26 decided to stay, joining the political and military training school in Tashkent for continuing their struggle for the independence of India with the help of new Soviet revolutionary government. Those who headed home reached Kabul by the summer of 1921 and returned to India in batches. The British secret police was keeping track of the gradual return of the Indian Muhajir groups. Most of them returned to Peshawar via Kabul. A few also arrived at Quetta via Kandahar. Barring a few, most of these returning Muhajirs were intercepted and interrogated at the border by Mr. S.M. Ewart, the officer-in-charge of the British Intelligence Bureau at Peshawar. The first batch of the returning Muhajirs arrived at Peshawar in June 1921 (2).
The Indian Muhajirs staying back in Russia joined with other Indian revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party and the Berlin Committee in Tashkent and Moscow. The convergence and fusion of these three independent streams of Indian nationalism – the Ghadar Party, the Berlin Committee, and the Hijrat Movement – produced a group of revolutionaries who became the founding fathers of the Communist Party of India. Coinciding with these developments in Tashkent, another Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy arrived in Moscow in May 1920 from Mexico via Berlin. He was personally invited by V.I. Lenin to attend the Second Congress of the Third Communist International (Comintern), held in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) (3). M.N. Roy had gained prominence as an international communist leader and a founding member of the Communist Party of Mexico (4). Roy was first introduced to Marxist ideology in New York and actively participated in revolutionary activities of the Indian, Irish, African-American, and Mexican revolutionary groups. For his revolutionary activities, Roy was briefly arrested in New York and was released after warning. Before the British intelligence could lay hands on Roy, he and his wife Evelyn fled to Mexico. Here also Roy was instrumental in founding of the Socialist Party of Mexico in December 1917. This party was later converted into the Communist Party of Mexico, gaining distinction of being the first communist party outside Russia.
While in Mexico, Roy had provided shelter and support to Mikhail Borodin, a senior Bolshevik leader in exile on the run from Czar’s secret police. After Borodin’s return to Russia where Bolshevik government had been established under Lenin, he reported about M.N. Roy’s crucial support and his great organisational activities for communism in the USA and Mexico. A grateful Moscow invited M.N. Roy to attend the Second Congress of the Third Communist International (Comintern) in Petrograd. The Comintern was formed in 1919 in difficult times for Russia while the newly formed Soviet republic was still fighting its battle for survival against the invading armies of seven allied powers.
The Second Congress of the Comintern held during 19 July-7 August, 1920 in Petrograd was, in a way, the first big event of the international communism to chart its way forward. Of the total 218 delegates, 150 had come from 35 different countries and regions of the world outside Russia. In the Congress, a special emphasis was given to the efforts of developing revolutionary struggles in the East. Briefed about his pioneering revolutionary activities in the US and Mexico and his impressive intellectual brilliance, V.I. Lenin warmly received Roy and inducted him into the Presidium of the Comintern, which he went on to serve for eight years. Roy worked with Lenin in preparing his well-known Preliminary Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions. Lenin was particularly interested in building support for the peoples’ revolutionary struggle in the East, especially in India. A Special Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in September, 1920 in Baku to focus on this issue. Lenin entrusted this task to M.N. Roy under his direct supervision. On the advice of Lenin, Roy also established a political and military training school, Indusky Krus, in Tashkent to prepare the East, particularly India, for the revolution. An ‘India House’ had also been set up for lodging the Indian revolutionary trainees.
The Second Congress of the Comintern was also attended by M.P.T. Acharya of the Berlin Committee, and another Indian revolutionary Abani Mukherji as delegates from India (5). Abani attended the Second Congress of the Comintern meeting Acharya, Roy, Evelyn Trent, and other Indian revolutionaries. While Roy and Evelyn had attended as delegates of the Communist Party of Mexico, Roy was also listed as representing India on various forums and committees of the Congress. Abdul Rab and Mohammad Shafiq participated as observers.
Formation of the Communist Party of India
The first Communist Party of India was founded in Tashkent on 17 October 1920 by a group of Indian revolutionaries in a meeting held after a session of The Second Congress of the Communist International. Those who attended the founding meeting included, M.N. Roy, Evelyn Trent Roy, Abani Mukherji, Rosa Fitingov (Abani’s wife), Mohammad Ali, Muhammad Shafiq Siddiqi, Syed Rafiq Ahmed, and M.P.T. Acharya. Abani Mukherji acted as the chairman of the meeting and Mohammad Shafiq was elected as the first General Secretary of the party (6). Taking this date as the inception of the Communist Party of India, it has the distinction of being the first communist party in Asia that came into existence, even before the founding of the Communist Party of China that took place in Shanghai in July, 1921. Roy, Abani Mukherji and Evelyn Roy jointly wrote ‘The Indian Communist Manifesto’, which was published in The Socialist from Glasgow. Abdul Qadir Sehrai, Masood Ali Shah, Mian Akbar Shah, Gohar Rehman, Mir Abdul Majid, Firozuddin Mansoor, Fazal Elahi Qurban, Fida Ali Zahid, Sultan Mahmud, Abdullah Safdar and Rehmat Ali Zakaria of Indian Muhajir group coming via Afghanistan joined the Communist Party of India later. Abani stayed in Tashkent as in-charge of the Indian political and military school.
After the first Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement was signed in March, 1921, the Indusky Krus School at Tashkent was closed down under pressure from the British representative protesting the alleged Soviet activities against India and Afghanistan from Russian Turkistan. Instead, a fully-fledged ‘Communist University for the Toilers of the East’ (KUTVa) was founded in Moscow (7). The Indian student/trainees transferred from Tashkent school to the newly established university in Moscow were among the first student batches of this university. Most of them later figured in the subsequent history of the Indian Communist movement in one way or the other (8). Among others, Iqbal Shaidai (9) played a role in the Indian independence movement while Abdul Rahim and Abdul Karim permanently settled in Russia, joined Soviet air force and both died in aircraft crashes.
Upon closure of Tashkent school, Mohammad Akbar Khan from Peshawar didn’t go to Moscow for joining the communist school. Instead, he returned home in Peshawar and established a printing press for disseminating revolutionary literature (10).
Indian Workers’ Movement
The first modern industrial unit – a cotton mill – in India was set up by the British probably in 1813 in Calcutta. Plantations and laying the railways heralded colonial capitalism in India. A British company, the Assam Tea Company, was established in 1839 to set up tea gardens in Assam. Coffee plantations were started in South India by 1840. A Scottish investor started the first Jute Mill in Calcutta in 1854. Later, after India was made part of the British Crown in 1858, industrial working class developed with laying the railway lines network, beginning of coal mining to feed the newly laid railways, and development of jute factories. Port cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, and Madras developed rapidly as the centers of modern commercial and industrial economy. Cotton and jute mills expanded to feed the needs of a large and growing British Empire. By 1914, there were 264 cotton mills in India employing 260,000 workers, 60 jute mills with 200,000 workers, railways with 600,000 workers, plantations with 700,000 workers, and mining had provided work to 150,000 workers.
The first labour action in India in its modern sense probably occurred in 1827 with the first ever recorded strike of the transport workers – the palanquin bearers – in Calcutta. Extremely harsh working conditions, extra-ordinary long working hours, and poverty and misery sinking deep among burgeoning industrial and plantation workers was bound to give rise to labour unrest and more active forms of protest expressed in individual and collective agitation against the assaults by mill- and plantation-owners. Although, the plantations and mines employed a much larger number of workers who were heavily exploited, their conditions did not come into public attention owing to them being away from the urban centers to come into the notice of early social reformers, journalists, political activists, and lawyers. The industrial workers in large towns, however, were in more public view. Early Indian social workers, mostly from professions of legal practice dealing with them were drawn to the workers’ cause, providing them better organizational work, effective press reporting and public support. First Labour Laws in British India were legislated in 1850s and 1860s. In fact, these legislations were carried out to effectively control and regulate the working class actions. Records of open workers’ resistance are available since 1870s in Bombay. In 1884, the Bombay Cotton Mill workers held a large meeting and raised their demands of reduced working hours to the government. Often, strikes were called. The first labour strike of modern industrial workers in the areas where Pakistan was later founded was recorded when Muslim and Sikh railway workers in Rawalpindi went on hartaal (strike) in May 1904 as part of the upsurge in Punjab. Apparently, the duration and frequency of labour protests and strikes had increased to a level that the Bombay Millowners’ Association was forced to refer to the existence of a ‘labour movement’ in the country in 1913 (11). Massive unemployment, famine and disease in the post First World War recession of economy caused widespread workers’ unrest and agitation, leading to frequent general strikes in 1919 and 1920.
In Bengal, Sasipada Banerjee founded a ‘Working Men’s Club’ in 1870 and published a monthly journal in Bengali Bharat Shramjibi in 1874. The Brahmo Samaj also formed the ‘Working Men’s Mission’ in Bengal in 1878. N.M. Lokhanday was involved in welfare and organizational work among cotton mill workers of Bombay in 1880s. He established ‘Bombay Millhands’ Association’ in 1890 and published a Marathi journal Dinbandhu in 1898. Bal Gangadhar Tilak formed ‘Bombay Millhands Defence Association’ in 1908 and the Kamgar Hitwardhak Sabha was formed in 1909. But these associations were primarily welfare bodies for the workers and did not participate in any of their organizational work for protest or collective action against the mill owners. Some of the modern trade union-like workers’ bodies e.g. the ‘Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India & Burma’ founded in 1897, or the ‘Printers’ Union’ in Calcutta and the ‘Postal Union’ in Bombay proved very short-lived and ceased to exist before they could make any impact. A Workers’ Welfare League was formed as a moderate left wing organisation in London in 1917 by radical labour and communist workers from India with the objective of promoting trade union activities in India. Shapurji Saklatwala, A.A. Mirza, and Dewan Chamanlal were among its founders (12). Other who joined it later included B.P. Wadia and Satyamurti from Madras, and B.C. Pal and Ghulam Anbia Khan Lohani (who had earlier worked for the Berlin Committee and Ghadar Party) form Bengal.
The first modern trade union in India, the Madras Labour Union, was formed by M. Singaravelu and B.P. Wadia in April 1918 in Madras. It mainly comprised of workers of Carnatic and Buckingham Mills in Madras but other workers from tramways and rickshaw-pullers also joined it. Soon many trade unions were formed in major cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Ahmadabad, and Kanpur. These trade unions mostly represented workers from cotton textiles, jute, railways, shipping, iron & steel, and post & telegraph industries. Encouraged by the founding of International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919, an All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed on 31 October, 1920, in Bombay, almost coinciding with the founding of the émigré Indian communist party in Tashkent. Lala Lajpat Rai, who had returned to India from the USA in 1919, was elected as its first President, and Joseph Baptista as the Vice-President. Other prominent leaders were Bal Gangadhar Tilak, N.M. Joshi, B.P. Wadia, and Dewan Chamanlal. About 107 trade unions from all over India were affiliated with AITUC, with the exception of only one, which stayed away from the trade union’s congress. It was the Ahmadabad Textile Labour Union under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s influence that had refused to join AITUC (13).
The third session of the AITUC was held on 26-27 March, 1923 in Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore. The President was Chattaranjan (C.R.) Das and K.L. Guaba was the Chairman of the Reception Committee. Among the delegates were N.M. Joshi and Moreno of the Bengal Trade Union Federation, G.K. Barker of the B.N. Railway, Kharagpur, M.A. Malik of Rohilkhand Railway, and J.B. Miller, an Irish railway guard and organizer of N.W. Railway Union, Lahore. National leaders like Motilal Nehru and Sarojni Naidu were also present. Initially a humanist advocating a spirit of reconciliation, the ex-President of National Congress and now Chairman of the Swaraj Party, C.R. Das, was turning to the organisation of workers and peasants. He had solid backing of the rising revolutionary movement in Bengal.
In the post-World War One recession many Indian businesses and industries were badly hit. By 1922, the Bombay textile industry had ceased to expand (14). In Calcutta, the jute industry had to put up with sudden fall in demand of its products with supply in excess. There were increased trade union activities in railways and wool factories in Punjab while there was unrest in iron and steel industries in UP, Bihar, and CP. The first major industrial strike by the textile workers in Bombay began on 15 January 1924 against refusal of Textile Millowners’ Association to pay annual bonus for the year 1923 to the workers on account of reduction in profits. From a phenomenal about 200% profit during the boom period, the industry profits had reduced to 70% in 1921, 24% in 1922, and 40% in 1923 due to post-war recession. The workers’ wages were, however, only a pittance (Rs.35 per month for men, and Rs.17 per month for women for a 10-hour day). Denial of a regular payment under the head of annual bonus at the year-end was a significant financial blow to most workers. Unrest had spread fast and textile workers joined the strike in large numbers. Soon, 81 out of 83 mills were closed, involving over 150,000 workers, including 30,000 women and children (15). The strike continued in February, causing unbearable hunger and misery among striking workers deprived of their wages, the only source of income for them to meet their daily food and living expenses. Joseph Baptista and N.M. Joshi represented the workers. Labour welfare societies and some humanists tried to organize workers’ relief camps and collect donations for the starving workers’ families. Indian National Congress refused to lend any political or financial support to the striking workers who were still holding fast. At the end of February, the government appointed an Inquiry Committee to review workers’ complaints. The Inquiry Committee, however, gave its verdict against the workers in March, 1924, and the government forced the mills to open under the watch of military patrols. Police opened fire on starving workers who tried to put up resistance, killing five on the spot in front of a mill gate and many were arrested, 13 on the charge of looting the shops (16). This was by far the largest workers’ strike in India that lasted about two months before being crushed by brutal force.
In order to regulate the industrial labour relations, new labour laws were enacted, including, Amended Factories Act, 1922, the Workman’s Compensation Act, 1923, the Trade Unions Act, 1926, the Trade Dispute Act, 1928, and the Maternity Benefits Bill of 1929. Also, the Public Safety Bill of 1929 was designed specially to keep the foreign communists, including members of the British Communist Party, out of India. The ‘steel frame’ of the British administration in India was ruthlessly protecting the interests of the British capital. As the infamous Punjab Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer had aptly put it in one of his addresses, ‘our duty is to our imperial position, to our kinsfolk in India, and to a thousand millions of British capital invested in India’.
1. Fazal Qadir was the secretary and Mohammad Farigh was treasurer of this branch in Baku.
2. Documents of The History of The Communist Party of India, Vol. Two (1923-1925), Ed. G. Adhikari, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1974, p.27-46.
3. The city’s original name was St. Petersburg but it was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and to Leningrad in 1924. Now it is again changed to St. Petersburg after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
4. M.N. Roy was born as Narendranath Bhattacharya in Bengal in 1887. He studied chemistry and engineering and joined early Bengali revolutionaries in 1907 fighting against the colonial rule. His leader and mentor was the well-known Bengali revolutionary Jatin Mukherjee. In 1915, Bhattacharya went to Java and Japan looking for arms supplies for the Indian revolutionary struggle. In Japan, he met with the Chinese nationalist revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese Kuomintang Party and leader of the Chinese democratic revolution of 1905. Chased by the British secret police, Narendranath sneaked into Korea and from there he sailed to the U.S.A. in 1916. Arriving in San Francisco, he changed his name to Manabendra Nath (M.N.) Roy. At Palo Alto in California, Roy met Leonore Evelyn Trent, a young Stanford graduate who fell in love with him. The couple moved to New York in 1917 where Roy married Evelyn Trent.
5. Abinath (Abani) Mukherji from a Bengali family living in Jabalpur was employed as a professional weaver in a textile mill in Ahmadabad when he was sent for technical training in Japan and Germany. In Germany, he was first exposed to socialist revolutionary ideas. Upon his return, he joined the revolutionary movement in Bengal and was arrested in 1915 in Singapore while attempting to procure weapons for the Indian revolutionaries. Escaping from prison in Singapore, Mukherji reached Dutch Java and joined the communist party. He went to Amsterdam and finally arrived in Russia where he lived and married.
6. Rosa Fitingov, the wife of Abani Mukherji was Russian-Jewish and a member of the Russian Communist Party. She was an assistant to the Lenin’s private secretary, Lydia Fotieva.
7. Kommunistticheskii Universitet Truddiashchikshia Vostoka (KUTVa) or ‘The Communist University of the Toilers of the East’ of Moscow has some well-known international leaders and future heads of state among its alumni, including Nazim Hikmete (Turkey), Liu Shao-Chi and Deng Xiao Peng (China), Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Tan Malaka (Indonesia), Jomo Kenyata (Kenya), Sen Katayama (Japan), Khalid Bakhdash (Syria), and Harry Haywood (USA). In 1938, the University was disbanded and its students and faculty distributed among other institutions.
8. These included, Habib Ahmed Naseem, Shaukat Usmani, Rafiq Ahmed, Firozuddin Mansoor, Mir Abdul Majid, Fazal Elahi Qurban, Rehmat Ali Zakaria, Khushi Mohammad, Abdul Qadir Sehrai, Fida Ali Zahid, Mian Akbar Shah, Mohammad Shafiq Siddiqi, Mohammad Akbar Khan, Gohar Rehman and Zafar Hasan Aibak.
9. Iqbal Shaidai never joined the communist party but continued working with M.N. Roy for the Indian independence in Paris; married a French woman, was expelled from France in 1929, and moved to live in Rome and adopted Italian nationality. During World War Two he supported Mussolini and Axis Powers against the British and broadcast radio programs on Indian affairs. Shortly before Indian independence, in spite of invitations from Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad to return to India, Shaidai chose Pakistan as his home and arranged a ‘Pakistan Day’ in Cairo with Sheikh Hasanul Banna of Ikhwanul Muslimin and Grand Mufti Amin Al-Hussaini of Palestine as guests. He returned to Pakistan in October 1947 and met Muhamad Ali Jinnah. However, he couldn’t play any significant role in the changing dynamics of the new country and died frustrated in Lahore in 1974.
10. Shaukat Siddiqi, Gumshuda Auraq (The Lost Pages), Riktab Publications, Karachi, 2011, p. 333.
11. Jake Johnson, Workers Movement, 2011, p. 130.
12. Shapur Dorabji Saklatwala was a scion of wealthy Parsee family of Bombay. His mother was sister of Jamsetji Tata, the founder of Tata’s business empire. After briefly working for Tata’s business, Shapur Saklatwala went to England and became an active member and parliamentarian of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was elected to British Parliament as a CPGB candidate in 1922, and 1924 elections.
13. Jake Johnson, Workers Movement, 2011, p. 132.
14. John Beams quoted in P. Woodruff, The Man Who Ruled India, the Guardians, (London: Cape, 1954), p. 48.
15. ‘Some Facts about the Bombay Strikes’ by Evelyn Roy, Inprecor, Vol 4., No.25, 17 April, 1924.
Chapter 2 to be continued...