By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) – (Continued)
Meerut Conspiracy Case
With the CPI being underground, communist workers mostly engaged in political work from various Workers and Peasant parties. Worried about the growing radicalization of politics and the communists’ influence in trade unions, the British Indian government launched a major attack arresting communists and leaders of the workers and peasant parties and tried them under Meerut Conspiracy Case (67). Amir Haider managed to escape to Goa and from there he reached Moscow to report to Comintern the developments relating to recent large scale arrests in India. 25 years old B.T. Ranadive emerged in Bombay as the party leader in the field. Not all of the accused were formal members of the Communist Party but nonetheless they were charged for sedition. Dr. M.A. Ansari and Jawaharlal Nehru were in the Defence Committee set up for the accused. Gandhi visited the jail to offer support to the prisoners. Amir Haider returning to India after a few months was finally arrested in Madras in 1936.
The Sessions Court in January 1933 awarded Muzaffar Ahmed a sentence for life. S.A. Dange, Philip Spratt, S.V. Ghate, Joglekar, and Mirajkar were sentenced for 12 years each, while Shaukat Usmani received 10 years. On an appeal filed in the Allahabad High Court, Justice Sir Shah Suleman reduced the sentences of Muzaffar Ahmed, S.A. Dange, and Shaukat Usmani to three years each on the grounds that the accused have already spent a considerable time in jail while waiting for the judgement. The convictions of few others including Hutchinson, Desai, Mitra, Sehgal, Shankar were overturned. The Meerut Conspiracy Case trial continued for about four years during which the accused reportedly enjoyed reasonably good facilities and in a way ‘lived well’ (68). The high profile proceedings of the case again provided a good platform for the prominent communist leaders to make their political ideas publicized while some new leaders like S.V. Deshpande, R.D. Bhardwaj, and B.T. Ranadive came to the forefront in party organisation. During this period, another well-publicized trial (1929-1931) and subsequent hanging of Bhagat Singh in March, 1931 also had equally resounding impact on the Indian political life. Though, not a communist or a CPI member, Bhagat Singh was exposed to the communist ideology during his imprisonment. Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, later to appear as a prominent communist leader and the General Secretary of CPI was also a co-accused in Bhagat Singh trial. The CPI, however, claimed Bhagat Singh as a Party hero and published pamphlets on his life and ideas.
While the British Indian government was putting full steam on to contain communists’ activities in the country, Gandhi launched a Civil Disobedience movement by his Dandi March in Gujarat to the sea, violating the salt excise law during March-April, 1930 diverting the attention of India and the world on him. Gandhi’s arrest led to unleashing a political storm; between 40,000 and 60,000 nationalist demonstrators were arrested and imprisoned across India. There was a general mood of defiance and violence in the air. In April, 1930, martial law had to be imposed to suppress violence that erupted after Chittagong armoury was raided by Bengali revolutionaries. From CPI’s stand point things couldn’t have been better.
There were some external factors including severe economic shocks and the affected classes’ responses to these changes that were at play in creating the volatile political situation as it was developing in India. It is interesting to note that underlying this great political upheaval in India the dynamics of purely economic interests of the politically rising Indian bourgeoisie was at play and shaping the political responses. As Suniti Kumar Ghosh in his India and The Raj: 1919-1947 and Rikhil Bhavnani of the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Saumitra Jha of Graduate School of Business, Stanford University have argued in ‘Forging a Non-Violent Mass Movement: Economic Shocks and Organisational Innovations in India’s Struggle for Democracy’, August 2013, that a combination of factors was at play. Firstly, Great Britain’s return to gold standard at pre-war (and according to John Maynard Keynes, overvalued) parity in 1925, secondly, abandoning of the gold standard in September 1931, effectively devaluing the pound, while at the same time insisting that the rupee remain pegged to sterling at its existing high value, and thirdly, abandoning of free trade in 1931 by the ‘Ottawa Agreement’, resulting in contraction in India’s external trade. With rupee pegged to sterling, and Britain entering a recession, the result was a substantial reduction of India’s exports to Great Britain and the world. This contraction was compounded by the Global Depression, which started in 1929. This exchange rate manipulation allowed Britain to reflate its economy at the expense of India’s economy and a massive outflow of gold from the country to Britain followed. Speaking in the House of Commons on 29 February, 1932, Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India, said: “More gold has been exported since last September or rather gold has been exported from India since September at a higher rate than it has ever been exported from the gold fields of South Africa” (69).
These factors directly affected every sector of the Indian economy and as a consequence the dynamics of the independence movement as well. Apart from some unaffected groups of producers and exporters of commodities that continued to do well during post-war years and were mainly grown on British-owned plantations in India, the producers of other staples, such as wheat and rice, and of cash crops such as cotton, indigo and jute faced a precipitous fall in the demand and profit due to depression and Britain’s full control over exchange rate and the preferential trade policies. The fall in the prices of these commodities affected the bulk of the population and production suffered, leaving little surplus for big traders to trade and export. The farmers began to switch from growing for-export crops to subsistence farming of basic food crops for own consumption. At this time the new Congress leadership appears to have reached to this sizable rural constituency by promising them agrarian reforms and land distribution from the now redundant landlord class. Jawaharlal Nehru’s swing to the left speaking of land reforms in 1929 reflected this changing dynamics. The poor peasants and the agricultural labour provided the mass of the civil disobedience movement of 1930-1931. India’s ‘import substituters’—the owners of India’s infant industry always had strong incentives to wrest control of India’s economic policies from the British. It was they who provided the necessary ‘capital’ to fuel and sustain the independence movement. The mainstay of India’s independence movement was no longer the affluent English-speaking professionals, particularly lawyers and old-style businessmen in large cities. Now the new big businesses groups like G.D. Birla and Sir Purshotumdas were closely linked with right wing Congress leaders, notably Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel as financiers and advisors to counter balance any ultra-left swing. In fact, they successfully exploited the vigour of the left wing for their own ends. According to Suniti Kumar Ghosh, “A negative factor that sustained Gandhi’s charisma” in spite of his repeated betrayals of the masses favoring big business, “was the weakness of the working class and the Communist Party of India” (70). Interestingly, the Congress’ Declaration of Independence of 26 January, 1930 talks more of economic conditions, exchange rates, taxes and growth than the usual nationalist rhetoric. By extending the civil disobedience movement to the bulk of population, the Congress had aligned incentives of poor in both rural and urban sectors.
The best of the situation, however, could be turned into the worst of the scenarios. By the tenth plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern in July 1929, Stalin had consolidated his position within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and it was also reflected in the Comintern. All opposition to the ultra-left shift of the Comintern had been liquidated. Strongly influenced by the Chinese experience but totally oblivious to the ground realities in India, unequivocal instructions were issued to CPI to take a clear stand and action on the issue of liquidation of WPPs and the national bourgeoisie i.e. the Indian National Congress and Gandhi. At this time Roy was expelled from the Comintern. Log time confidante of Roy, Ghulam Anbia Lohani also changed sides and boarded the band wagon and recanted his previous position. Comintern’s official policy guidelines were published by Aug-Sep 1929 and by Jan 1930 the Indian communists had no doubt about what Comintern wants them to do going forward: it was to completely dissolve all remnants of the WPPs, sever its connections with all elements of bourgeoisie, and launch a full-scale attack on Gandhi, Nehru, and the Indian National Congress. The Comintern journal Inprecor in its July 1930 issue carried a message to the working classes of India from the All-China Labour Federation, “The Indian Nationalist Party under the direction of Gandhi is just like the Kuomintang of China. Both are the tools of imperialism. We must not have the slightest illusion towards Gandhi. On the contrary, we must oppose him in order to guarantee the victory of the revolution’ (71). In a joint ‘Open Letter to the Indian Communists’ in 1932, the Communist Parties of Britain, China and Germany said, “The Indian bourgeoisie is trying to preserve its influence over the masses…is continuing the policy of counter revolutionary compromise with British imperialism and betrayal of the revolutionary people”. Completely misreading the events and falling quite wide off the mark in its assessment of the situation on the ground, the letter naively claimed, “The events of the last few months show that process of drawing the Indian proletariat into the economic and political struggle, accompanied by its liberation from the influence of the National Congress, is growing…” (72) [Italics added by the author].
Accordingly, the communists pushed for radicalization of trade unions and gained marginal majority in AIUTC. At its Nagpur session in 1929 presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru, the communists forced through many radical decisions including rejecting the proposal for sending delegates to the ILO and instead opting for affiliation of AIUTC with Comintern sponsored League Against Imperialism. This overly aggressive posture by communists caused a split in AIUTC. The Rightists and moderate Congress trade union leaders like N.M. Joshi, Shiva Rao, V.V. Giri (future President of India), and Dewan Chamanlal left AIUTC and formed a parallel Indian Trade Union Federation (IUTF) with 95,639 members. AIUTC was left with 92,797 members and Subhash Chandar Bose became its President and CPI leader S.V. Deshpande became the General Secretary. By 1931, however, communists lost their hold on the AIUTC to Roy’s followers and after having failed in their attempt for opposing the resurgent Congress influence, communists left AIUTC to form their own radical Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC). Later, N.M. Joshi’s IUTF was converted into a new National Federation of Trade Unions (NFTU) in 1933 after uniting with some independent trade union groups, successfully expanding their membership to 135,000.
We do not have any record available of dissension or representation for review of this ultra-left isolationist policy from any of the CPI leaders. If there was any feeling of disquiet, it was not, perhaps, brought on record. The Indian communists seem to have quietly and loyally followed the instructions from high and above. After the liquidation of M.N. Roy, Viren Chattopadhya had emerged as the leading expert of Comintern’s new policy on India. Opposing the Congress and Gandhi in this highly charged political atmosphere in India was not an easy task for the communists. Gandhi had been able to build and sustain his enormous popularity with the masses and to oppose him was to risk the enmity of vast number of people who adored him and blindly followed his political actions. The CPI leadership, however, proceeded to commit a political suicide. Putting up a brave face, they embarked upon a path of ultra-leftist opposition to Congress’ Satyagraha movement, thereby, quickly isolating CPI into a narrow ‘communist sect’. The CPI formulated a key strategy document known as the Draft Platform of Action of the CP of India, which appeared in Comintern’s organ Inprecor (International Press Correspondence), in Dec 1930. About the National Congress’ movement, it said, with a strong ring of rhetoric replete with jargon, “Its present `opposition’ represents merely maneuvers with British imperialism, calculated to swindle the mass of the toilers and at the same time to secure the best possible terms of compromise with the British robbers. The assistance granted to British imperialism by the capitalist class and its political organization, the National Congress, takes the shape at the present time of a consistent policy of compromise with British imperialism at the expense of the people, it takes the form of the disorganization of the revolutionary struggle against the native States, the system of landlordism and the reinforced exploitation, jointly with the imperialists, of the mass of the people, of the working class in particular ” (73).
The theoretical correctness of their assessment of an element of duplicity inherent in Congress’s national bourgeois leadership notwithstanding, the Communists had unwittingly absented themselves from the ground where the real action was; they abstained from the mass agitation on the streets and small towns in India, leaving people in more firm grip of the Congress representing Indian bourgeoisie. Gradually, the communists lost their control and influence in the powerful trade unions like the Girni Kamgar Union and the Railways Union. They faced internal dissensions and factional rivalries. Bombay’s group broke up into two factions; one led by Deshpande and the other by Ranadive. Bengal group also divided into splinter factions. In 1931, Abdul Halim, Somnath Lahiri, and Ranen Sen formed a separate ‘Calcutta Committee of the Communist Party of India’. The communist leaders in jail were also quarrelling with each other. They expelled S.A. Dange from the party for his alleged anti-party activities. In 1931, Ranadive proceeded to form a separate party of his own—the Bolshevik Party.74 From their prison cells, where most of the Communist leaders were incarcerated, the outlook of the communist party of India did not look very bright. For a while, it seemed to have run aground.
67. The principal accused in Meerut Conspiracy Case were Muzaffar Ahmed, Shaukat Usmani, S.A. Dange, and 30 others, including Philip Spratt, Francis Bradley, Lester Hutchinson, S.V. Ghate, K.N. Sehgal, G. Adhikari, Goura Shankar, K.L. Ghosh, P.C. Joshi, M.G. Desai, K.R. Mitra, S. Benerjee, and Gopan Chakarvarti, etc.
68 Samaren Roy, op cited, p. 136-137.
69. Suniti Kumar Ghosh, India and the Raj:1919-1947, Vol.II, p. 5.
70. Ibid, p. 81.
71. Gene D. Overstreet & Marshall Windmiller, op cited, p. 145.
72. K.N. Ramachandran, From First to Ninth Party Congress: Nine Decades of the Communist Movement in India, Umakant, New Delhi, 2011, p. 11.
73. Suniti Kumar Ghosh, op cited, p. 41.
74. Ibid, p. 39.
Chapter 2 – Concluded