By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) – (Continued)
Communists in India
The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia under the leadership of Lenin in October of 1917 had powerfully shaken the world; it was never to be the same again. The Soviet revolution had caused strong reverberations in many European countries. Hungary and Germany were on the brink of a socialist revolution. These epoch-making changes had an electrifying effect in the colonies, including India. Many young people were drawn toward socialist ideas. Freedom fighters, political and trade union activists, writers, and journalists in India gravitated toward the new socialist ideology. Many of them freely mixed Marxist theory with other popular liberal and theosophical trends and their own cultural and religious biases. Some communist workers formed active groups in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Ahmadabad, Kerala, Kanpur, Karachi, Lahore, and Amritsar. These groups were participating in the activities of trade unions, peasant and plantation workers’ associations and trying to bring weekly and fortnightly journals and news sheets. Some of these groups were inspired and led by the returning communists from Russia but most of them had evolved independently. These communist groups worked with little coordination among themselves or with the émigré CPI. They worked under difficult conditions as the British government had legally banned all communist activities in India.
This was the time when M.N. Roy from the émigré Communist Party of India (CPI) was making efforts for building a nucleus of party organisation inside India. The Comintern had formulated the ‘General Line of the World Proletarian Socialist Revolution’ on the basis of Lenin’s Thesis on the National & Colonial Question. It called for two dimensions of the revolutionary struggle: The Socialist Revolution under the leadership of the proletariat in the developed capitalist & imperialist countries, and the Peoples’ Democratic Revolution under the leadership of the proletariat based on a worker-peasant alliance in Afro-Asian-Latin American countries. Based on the local experience in China and India, the approach of forming two parties, one, an open and legal party – the Workers & Peasants Party – and, the other, an underground Communist Party for illegal organisational work was adopted. Many communists and their active sympathizers were working in the Indian National Congress promoting socialist radical and aggressive ideas. It was Syed Fazlul Hassan Hasrat (Hasrat Mohani), a ‘Muslim Communist’ activist in Indian National Congress who had introduced the first resolution for ‘complete independence’ of India in the meeting of the subject committee, and on the open stage of the Congress at Ahmadabad in December, 1921. He called for ‘complete independence of India’ from January 1, 1922, and that India be declared a republic and be named the ‘United States of India’. He said that in the event Martial Law is imposed by the authorities as a result of this declaration of independence, a ‘guerrilla war’ should be launched against the British government. Young radical supporters of Hasrat Mohani including, Ram Parsad Bismil, Sachindarnath Sanyal, Ashfaqullah Khan & others (who would later form the Hindustan Republican Association with Chandar Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh) forcibly occupied the stage, pressing for adoption of their resolution. The resolution was, however, defeated in the Congress’ subject committee due to strong opposition from Gandhi. Again, Hasrat pressed for the demand in his presidential address to the Muslim League session held in the same week at Ahmadabad. For his rebellious presidential address at the Muslim League conference, Hasrat Mohani was arrested and was sentenced for two years on the charges of sedition in July, 1922. Hasrat Mohani is credited to have coined and introduced the slogan of “Inqilab Zindabad!” [Long Live Revolution!] first time in the Indian agitation politics.
Towards the end of 1921, the trained Indian revolutionaries in Moscow, of whom some had joined the CPI and some did not, were encouraged to return home and work for the communist party in India or for the independence of the country. They started returning India in groups. Shaukat Usmani and Masood Ali Shah were the first to leave Moscow in September, 1921 reaching India safely through Iran. Gohar Rehman and Mian Akbar Shah also returned via Iran but taking a longer route reaching India after 5 months, crossing over Alborz mountains and coming down via Shiraz, Esfahan and finally reaching Karachi by boat. Akbar Shah was, however, arrested few days after reaching home. Mir Abdul Majid and Firozuddin Mansoor failed to cross into Iran from Azerbaijan and returned to Moscow. Again, in March 1922, a bigger group including Mohammad Shafiq, Mir Abdul Majid, and Firozuddin Mansoor set out via Pamir-Chitral route (17). All of them ended up getting arrested after entering Chitral into India, except for Mohammad Shafiq who remained in hiding in Iran (18). These Indian revolutionaries were tried in India and were sentenced in various cases known as Peshawar and Moscow Conspiracy Cases. Few of them, however, repented and worked against communists (19).
M.N. Roy’s efforts to build a nucleus of communist organization inside India under the auspices of émigré CPI was to have a party in India that may lend him a ‘constituency’ in India and support his position in the Comintern. For a closer contact with India, Roy moved to Berlin and published a bi-monthly The Vanguard of Indian Independence starting from May, 1922. An Eastern Bureau of the Comintern was set up to coordinate with Indian communists and smuggle the printed material into India through Indian sailors on board ships plying between Indian ports and Europe. Rehmat Ali Zakaria (20), Zafar Hasan Aibak (21) and Mohammad Ali of Indian students group and Nalini Gupta worked with Roy in the Bureau. On behest of M.N. Roy and the Eastern Bureau, Nalini Gupta visited India undetected in 1921 and established initial contacts with groups of communists already working in India e.g. Shripad Amrit (S.A.) Dange, editor of The Socialist, in Bombay, Muzaffar Ahmed in Bengal, Shaukat Usmani who had by now based himself in Kanpur, Ghulam Hussain, editor of Inqilab (Revolution) in Lahore, and Malayapuram (M) Singaravelu Chettiya in Madras. Roy also arranged to send Comintern emissary, Charles Ashleigh (22), to India who met Dange with Roy’s messages in September 1922. During 1922-1923, M.N. Roy wrote many letters to Muzaffar Ahmed, S.A. Dange, Shaukat Usmani, Ghulam Hussain, and M. Singaravelu to coordinate and form an organizational centre. Dange had commenced publication of The Socialist as a weekly paper in August, 1922 but later converted it into a monthly journal from February, 1923. Ghulam Hussain started publishing Inqilab from Lahore sometime after July 1922. He was actively involved in Lahore with M.A. Khan, a Railway union leader, and Shamsuddin. M. Singaravelu was a successful lawyer in Madras working in trade unions. He is credited to form the first trade union in India in April, 1918, the Madras Labor Union of the British-owned Buckingham & Carnatic Mills. He also published Labour Kisan Gazette – ‘a fortnightly journal of Indian communism’ towards the end of December, 1923. It, however, ceased publication by March, 1924. Singaravelu was also a prominent member of the Indian Congress in Madras, and was a member of the Tamilnadu provincial committee and a member of the party’s All India Central Committee (AICC). He edited a Tamil weekly and several Tamil books and pamphlets.
M.N. Roy and other senior Indian communist leaders were aware of the weaknesses of the returning ‘communists’. In his letter of 25 December, 1922, Roy writes to Dange, “A number of boys who had received their training in Moscow have been sent to India. They are all members of our party. Originally, they were not very suitable material being Khilafat pilgrims on their way to Angora but we got hold of them and could make some of them come over. Their intellectual caliber however is not to the mark nor are they proletarians. But they are good boys and have received a fairly good Marxian training. They will develop in practice. Four of them are already in India and seven more are on the way” (23).
Working Class Party and Open Mass Party
In the face of a ruthless colonial administration not allowing the Communist Party to legally work in India, the main challenge for the Indian communists was to find means of engaging in open political activity for mobilsing workers, peasants, and general masses to rally to their political program. Most of the radical political activists were working inside trade unions and Kisan Sabhas (peasant bodies) seriously limiting their ability to work for a broader political program. Many of them worked in Indian Congress for the political work. Highlighting the urgent need of a progressive legal political party on whose platform communists and socialists could freely work, Roy wrote to Dange in December 1922 that, “the communist nucleus should take a very active part in the formation of a mass party for revolutionary mass struggle” (24). Roy also drafted a program for the mass party and wrote to Dange that he [Dange] and Singaravelu should try to present it before the Communists at the time of Indian National Congress session to be held in Gaya, Bihar, in December 1922. In another letter he made clear distinction between the organization of CPI and of the open mass party, yet showing the inevitable connection between the two. Roy in one of his letters to Muzaffar Ahmed in February, 1923, says, “At present things ought to be done secretly. But at the same time, an open party will also have to be organized. The leadership of this party will be in the hands of us [Communist Party] but will not openly preach the communist programme. The principal work of the present moment is to organize such a party. This party will be named the ‘Peoples’ Party’ or ‘Workers and Peasants Party’ (25). Roy also said that he did not want to use the word ‘Hindustan’ in the party’s name owing to its obvious reference to Hindu religion alone and that it might hurt the sensibilities of the Muslim population. In June, 1923, Roy wrote that “in formulating our programme it should be borne in mind that India is still overwhelmingly an agrarian country; therefore, the agrarian question must be pivot of our programme… any programme that will fail to put forth a solution of the problem of land ownership cannot be expected to secure response from the peasant masses” (26).
The idea of forming a mass party was discussed at Gaya among S.A. Dange, Abani Mukherji, Singaravelu, and Dr. Manilal Shah, who were all present there. Following these discussions, Dr. Manilal (27) together with Abani Mukherji produced a draft Manifesto for the party, developing from the draft already circulated by Roy before Congress’ Gaya session. The draft manifesto was circulated by Singaravelu to all groups. A letter from Singaravelu addressed to Ghulam Hussain in Lahore suggests that the Manilal’s draft Manifesto was amended and redrafted based on suggestions (28), including from S.A. Dange (29).
Working independently on the advice of M.N. Roy and, perhaps, together with Shaukat Usmani, Ghulam Hussain in Lahore sent out a circular letter on 27 April, 1923 to 25 communist workers in India, inviting them to meet in a conference in Lucknow on 30 June, 1923, for establishing a mass party. Ghulam Hussain’s invitation letter was addressed to the prominent communist leaders of India including, S.A. Dange in Bombay, and Muzaffar Ahmed in Bengal (30). The letter was signed by Ghulam Hussain and Shamsuddin Hassan.
Meanwhile, Singaravelu in Madras went ahead and held a conference towards the end of April to establish Labour & Kisan Party of Hindustan on 1st of May, 1923, celebrating the ‘Labour Day’. This was probably the first recorded celebration of May Day in India where a red flag of the party was unfurled. The party also published its manifesto. Though, initially welcoming the move, both Dange from Bombay and Roy from Berlin, later, independently disagreed with and criticized many parts of weak and confusing political formulations contained in Singaravelu’s party manifesto. Initially, Dange had wished to name the party ‘The People’s Party’, but, he seems to have generally reconciled with Singaravelu’s initiative and regularly reported the party’s activities in Madras and his own in Bombay under a Monthly Report of the Labour & Kisan Party of Hindustan in his organ The Socialist. The Lucknow Conference called by Ghulam Hussain from Lahore was never held because of a massive police crackdown on communists before its proposed date.
The Peshawar Conspiracy & Kanpur Conspiracy Cases
Based on the intelligence reports and evidence gathered from the returning Muhajirs from Russia and few others, a series of ‘sedition’ and ‘conspiracy’ cases were instituted in India during 1922-1924 to incarcerate communist and political workers. These cases are known in the history as the Peshawar Conspiracy Cases or Moscow Conspiracy Cases. Five Conspiracy Cases were instituted and accused communist workers were tried in Peshawar and harsh sentences were pronounced by the British courts. A few of the sentences announced in these cases were:
* First Peshawar Conspiracy Case (May 1922): Mohammad Akbar Khan Qureshi (Haripur Hazara), 3 years, and Bahadur Khan, 1 year;
* Second Peshawar Conspiracy Case (March 1923): Mohammad Akbar Khan Qureshi, 7 years; Mohammad Hassan (Balochistan), 5 years; Ghulam Mehbub (Peshawar), 5 years; (all sentences included 3-months solitary confinement);
* Third Peshawar Conspiracy Case (May 1923): Akbar Shah Miankhel (31) (Nowshehra), 2 years; Sheikh Firozuddin Mansoor (Sheikhupura), 1 year; Mir Abdul Majid (Lahore), 1 year; Syed Habib Ahmed Naseem (32) (Shahjahanpur), 1 year; Syed Rafiq Ahmed (33) (Bhopal), 1 year; Sultan Mahmud Tarin (34) (Rihana, Hazara), 1 year; Gohar Rehman Tarin (35) (Darwesh, Hazara), 2 years. Ghulam Hussain and Fida Ali Zahid turned approvers and were released.
While the Fourth and the Fifth Peshawar Conspiracy Cases were yet to be concluded, the British police launched another major attack on the growing ‘Bolshevik threat’ in India. Scores of leading communists, including, Muzaffar Ahmed (in Calcutta), Shaukat Usmani (in Kanpur), and Ghulam Hussain (in Lahore) were arrested in May, 1923, and Nalini Gupta was arrested in Calcutta in December. The British Newspaper Morning Post reported, “the number of Bolshevik agents arrested in India is seventy” (36). S.A. Dange and M. Singaravelu were not yet arrested. Based on the statements of Ghulam Hussain and Nalini Gupta provided during investigation and other incriminating material (it had transpired that almost entire correspondence between M.N. Roy and the Indian communist leaders was regularly intercepted and copies were retained by the British secret police), the British Indian government decided to institute a separate well-known Kanpur Conspiracy Case in March, 1924. In order to woo Ghulam Hussain to betray the cause, the government told him “that the case against him will be withdrawn if he is ready to make a complete disclosure, admit his own complicity in the conspiracy, and appear as a witness against Mohammad Shafiq in the Fourth Peshawar Conspiracy Case still under trial in Peshawar. Ghulam Hussain took the bait and wrote to the government of India from jail on 15 January, 1924, “offering unconditional surrender and to make further statement” (37). He said that “If he gave up politics he would be discredited. But he would issue a manifesto if he is released saying his health has broken down and he would not take part in politics” (38). Similarly, Nalini Gupta also provided a detailed statement to the secret police that was not made part of the case documents. Much later, only after the Indian independence in 1947 it was discovered from the review of British secret police archives that after his arrest Nalini Gupta had continued acting as informer for the police (39).
S.A. Dange and Singaravelu were arrested in March, 1924. Singaravelu was subsequently released on account of his fragile health. The trial began in Kanpur in April 1924 before the British Judge H.E. Holme, who had earned notoriety a year before by sentencing 172 peasants to death by hanging in the famous Chaura Chauri Case. M.N. Roy, Muzaffar Ahmed, S.A. Dange, Nalini Gupta, Shaukat Usmani, M. Singaravelu, Ghulam Hussain, and R.C. Sharma were charged for conspiring to violently overthrow the King Emperor. Ram Charanlal (R.C.) Sharma, from Etah who had been jailed earlier for his participation in revolutionary movement in 1905 was again wanted in a sedition case in 1920. He took refuge in French controlled territory of Pondicherry (now Puducherry). He was reported to be the main conduit for smuggling printed material sent by M.N. Roy from France into India. Roy’s colleague Mohammad Ali Sipassi visited Sharma in Pondicherry when under British pressure, French authorities detained Sharma in February, 1924, and Mohammad Ali Sipassi was expelled. Roy was also expelled from France. As M.N. Roy was in Germany and R.C. Sharma in the French territory of Pondicherry, both could not be produced before the court in British India. Meanwhile, Ghulam Hussain had confessed having contacts with M.N. Roy and Comintern, and having received funds from the Russians through Mohammad Ali in Kabul. Ghulam Husain and Fida Ali Zahid turned approvers in the Third Peshawar Conspiracy Case and were released. Upon Ghulam Husain’s evidence (40), Mohammad Shafiq41 was sentenced for 3 years in April 1924. Fazal Elahi Qurban was sentenced for 5 years in the Fifth Peshawar Conspiracy Case. His sentence was subsequently reduced to 3 years in 1927. Muzaffar Ahmed, Nalini Gupta, S.A. Dange and Shaukat Usmani were sentenced for 4-year rigorous imprisonment each. Dr. Manilal appeared as Defence Counsel for Shaukat Usmani and Muzaffar Ahmed, while Pandit Kapildeo Malaviya of Allahabad appeared for Dange and Nalini Gupta. The appeal against the judgment was also dismissed by the High Court in November 1924.
Unlike the Peshawar Conspiracy Cases that were tried in low profile, the Kanpur Conspiracy Case was the first case against communists that caught wide publicity and brought Indian communists in lime light to a large section of Indian and British people. The British media and the Communist Party of Great Britain gave wide publicity to the Kanpur trial and published many reports in its papers during March-May, 1924. A fund raising committee was established in Britain for the defence of accused in Kanpur, with G. Landsbury, J. Maxton, Shapurji Saklatwala, and A. MacManus, all prominent parliamentarians and politicians as its members. The Communist Party of France had also sent donation for the committee.
The Mass Party
The first mass socialist party in Bengal was formed in November, 1925 under the name of ‘The Labour Swaraj Party of Bengal’ by Qazi Nazrul Islam, Qutubuddin Ahmed, Hemantkumar Sarkar, and Shamsuddin Hussain. Muzaffar Ahmed had not yet returned to Bengal after his release from jail in Kanpur Conspiracy Case. The party’s weekly organ Langal was first published on 16 December with Nazrul Islam as its chief editor and Manibhusan Mukherji as editor. It was, one of the first few journals in an Indian language that were started by communists India. The others were Inqilab (Urdu) by Ghulam Hussain in Lahore that was published for only a few months in 1922, and Thozilali (Tamil) by Singaravelu from Madras in 1923, of which there is hardly any record available. The Kirti (Punjabi) was published later by Santok Singh of the Ghadar Party in February, 1926 as an organ of the Kirti-Kisan Party (Worker-Kisan Party) of Punjab under Sohan Singh Josh. The Socialist by Dange in Bombay was published in English. Owing to immense popularity of its chief-editor Nazrul Islam as a popular revolutionary poet in Bengal, the Langal was, perhaps, the most widely circulated influential organ of nascent Indian communist movement. Of its first issue carrying a message of blessing from Rabindranath Tagore, 5,000 copies are said to be sold in one day. Nazrul’s famous poem ‘Samyavadi’ (‘The Communist’) was also published in the first issue of Langal. The Langal ceased publication after 15 issues and re-appeared in August, 1926 as the Ganavani.
The name of the Labour Swaraj Party was subsequently changed to the Workers and Peasants Party of Bengal at Krishinagarh conference in February, 1926, to bring it in line with other similar parties and a common political program earlier formulated by M.N. Roy. A new executive committee was elected with Dr. Naresh Chandra Sengupta as the president and Hemantkumar Sarkar and Qutubuddin Ahmed as joint secretaries.
The ‘Workers and Peasants Party’ in U.P. was formed at Meerut in October 1928. Puran Chand (P.C.) Joshi from Kumaon in Almora, UP (now in Uttarkhand) was its General Secretary before he joined CPI in 1929. By the end of the year, an all-India Workers and Peasants Party Conference was called in Calcutta to form an all-India organization with an executive committee comprising of representatives from all provincial parties. Most of the Workers and Peasant parties founded in various parts of India by different communist groups on their own initiative rather than as a concerted policy initiative of the still embryonic CPI.
17. Others in the group included Rafiq Ahmed, Habib Ahmed Naseem, Sultan Mahmud, Fida Ali Zahid, Abdul Qadir Sehrai and Abdul Hamid.
18. Mohammad Shafiq remained in hiding and drifting. Finally, getting tired of running from the police he surrendered himself to British Consulate in Siestan (Iran) in late 1923. He was brought to India for trial in Peshawar and was sentenced in 1924 for three years. Abdullah Safdar was the last to arrive in India in 1933, mostly remaining underground pushing M.N. Roy’s program in Punjab. He reportedly left for the Soviet Union during early phase of World War Two and was never heard of again.
19. Masood Ali Shah surrendered himself to authorities in Dec 1921 and spied for them against communists. For the purpose he also travelled to Soviet Union in June 1922 and in 1929 when he was arrested by Soviet police and was probably executed there. According to S.V. Ghate, a senior CPI leader from Bombay, Masud Ali Shah had confessed to him in 1926 spying for the British. Similarly, Abdul Qadir Sehrai was set free and later frequently wrote against communism; he was given a job of Pushto instructor at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.
20. Rehmat Ali Zakaria continued his work with M.N. Roy in Comintern’s Eastern Bureau in Moscow and then in Berlin. After his expulsion from Berlin, Zakaria settled in Paris, married a French woman. He earned his PhD from Sorbonne. He returned to Pakistan in 1954 but soon found it suffocating and went back to France, never to return.
21. Zafar Hasan Aibak remaining in Soviet Union worked with Roy; In 1924, he moved to Turkey, married a Turkish woman and adopted Turkish nationality, joining Turkish army as a commissioned officer. He represented Turkey on a diplomatic mission to Kabul before he died in Istanbul in 1989, leaving behind a daughter.
22. Charles Ashleigh, getting involved in anarchism and radical philosophies left England in 1909, arrived in Argentina and worked on railroads before moving to USA in 1912. He joined Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international revolutionary labour organisation founded in Chicago in 1905. Ashleigh went to Soviet Union in 1922 and worked for Comintern. He visited India as representative of Comintern under the alias Danda Lal, arrested and deported by the British Indian government. His papers are placed in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at the University of Manchester, England.
23. Documents of CPI, op cited, Vol II, p. 37.
24. Ibid, p. 99.
25. Ibid, p. 283.
26. Ibid, p. 147.
27. Dr. Manilal, from Baroda and admitted to Bar in Britain worked among Indians in Mauritius and trade unions in Fiji. Deported from Fiji in 1920, he went to New Zealand but was again deported for his Bolshevik activities and returned to India in 1922. He was a regular contributor to Dange’s The Socialist.
28. Documents of CPI, op cited, Vol II, p. 102.
29. Ibid, p. 106.
30. Ghulam Hussain’s letter was addressed to: M. Singaravelu, Abdul Rahim, and Iyer (Madras), S.A. Dange, Editor, The Socialist, Aunul Hassan (Bombay), Sampurnanand, Editor Maryada (Benares), Muzaffar Ahmed, B.N. Biswas, Hamidullah Khan, and M.L. Sarkar (Calcutta), Alif Din ‘Nafis’ (Campbellpur), R.S. Nimbkar (Poona), Dr. Manilal (Gaya), Jiwanlal Kapoor, M.A. Khan, and Mazhar Ali, Secretary, Khilafat Committee (Lahore), Abdul Ghaffar Salihusseini (Larkana), H.A. Malik, Editor, Mazdur (Lucknow), Sunder Singh Layallpuri, Amar Singh, Master Tara Singh, and Bhai Piyara Singh (Amritsar).
31. Mian Akbar Shah subsequently returned to Islamia College Peshawar to complete his education, qualified as a lawyer and practiced in Nowshehra. He joined Ghafar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars in 1939 and helped Subhash Chandra Bose in his escape to Afghanistan for onward journey to Berlin. After founding of Pakistan, he joined Muslim League with Khan Qayum Khan and was elected an MPA in 1951.
32. Habib Ahmed Naseem resumed work for CPI in Delhi; he attended Comintern’s Sixth Congress in 1928 together with Shaukat Usmani and Mohammad Shafiq and settled in the Soviet Union. He never returned to India.
33. Rafiq Ahmed together with Habib Ahmed Naseem worked sometime for CPI in Delhi but later joined Bhopal state service. He maintained his sympathies with his communist friends. In 1967, Soviet Union honoured his services by a civil award.
34. Sultan Mahmood opted to retire to his private life away from politics.
35. Gohar Rehman remained connected with the communists and the left movement, working with Mir Abdul Majid in bringing out an Urdu weekly Mehnatkash (1926-27) from Lahore; elected member of the Action Committee of the All India Trade Union Council, and involved in dissemination of communist and progressive literature.
36. Documents of CPI, op cited, Vol II, p. 48.
37. Ibid, p. 278.
38. Ibid, p. 279.
39. Ibid, p. 277.
40. After his release turning an approver, Ghulam Hussain continued writing for Inqilab and Bombay Mail; worked in the All India Trade Union Congress and Railways Union. He was teacher of history and economics in Lahore and retired as the Vice-Principal of Islamia College, Lahore before he died in 1976.
Chapter 2 to be continued...