By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists
By 1933 when the Indian communist leaders were released early on account of their reduced jail terms in Meerut Conspiracy Case the CPI was in doldrums. Having left the Workers and Peasants Parties on the advice of Comintern, the CPI leaders turned towards internal re-organisation and re-assessment. G. Adhikari, P.C. Joshi, S.G. Patkar, Muzaffar Ahmed, and S.A. Dange reconstituted CPI in December 1933 in Calcutta as their main political platform. The CPI was formally affiliated to the Comintern and a provisional Central Committee was elected. An All-India Party convention was held in March 1934 and a ‘Draft Political Thesis’ was adopted. It reflected the changes that had started taking place in Soviet Union after the rise of Nazi fascism in Germany in 1933. Russia and the Comintern was moving towards a less ideological and more pragmatic approach to the Nazi threat. Georgi Dimitrov, the charismatic new secretary of the Comintern, quickly sensed the potential of a ‘united front’ and with Stalin’s concurrence developed a new Comintern strategy (1). In India, somewhat embarrassed by its isolation, the CPI regretted the mistakes committed during the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-1931 when, in its own words, the communists had ‘objectively isolated themselves from the struggle of masses’. The party now resolved to correct its sectarian deviation by using the Congress platform as a ‘popular front’ and systematically combating the Congress reformism and its ‘Left varieties’. It gave a call for building the Anti-Imperialist League— ‘a united anti-imperialist front under Proletarian Leadership’. The ‘Manifesto of the Anti-Imperialist Conference of 1934’ analyzed the character of the Indian bourgeoisie having links with British capital as counter revolutionary, denouncing the Congress as “an organisation of the Indian bourgeoisie and working in alliance with princes, landlords and zamindars.”
Working together with other trade union groups, CPI broadened its trade union activities. In the wake of global economic depression in early 1930s, nascent Indian industry and business had suffered considerable contraction and the working classes were in greatly agitated mood. A series of strikes started in 1934 in Sholapur, Ahmadabad, Kanpur, Ajmer, Calcutta, Delhi, and Nagpur. By April, workers of most of the Bombay textile mills were on strike, which lasted till June. The communist party activities were expanded covering three main railway systems, almost the entire textile industry of Bombay, and parts of jute industry in Bengal and cotton industry in Kanpur. When the Indian left wing nationalists, led by Jai Parkash Narayan, Acharya Narender Dev, and Minoo Masani formed the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in May 1934 as a caucus of socialists in the Indian National Congress, the CPI initially opposed it as ‘social fascists’. In July 1934, again a major crackdown on communist movement was undertaken by the government. The CPI and its allied communist organisations and about a dozen of CPI-controlled trade unions were declared illegal by the government. The Kirti Kisan Party of Punjab and its associated youth wing Naujawan Bharat Sabha were banned in September 1934. Most of the senior communist leaders were arrested. When Ghate was arrested, G. Adhikari took over as the party secretary. Mirajkar acted as secretary after Adhikari was put behind bars. This proved to be a severe blow on the party structure and the party was largely disintegrated and its members were scattered.
Working with Indian Congress
The Indian communist movement, however, survived this blow and re-emerged from it more strongly. After over a year of silence, communist workers re-grouped and met in Surat in late 1935 and P.C. Joshi, at a young age of 28 was elected as the new Secretary General of the party, which position he held till 1948. By now, Ajoy Kumar Ghosh had also joined CPI after his release from jail in Bhagat Singh case. He also rose rapidly in the party organization and was taken in as member of its new central committee. Ajoy Ghosh and R.D. Bhardwaj were also inducted in the Polit Bureau for assisting P.C. Joshi. By 1935, the Communist International had clearly shifted its policy towards supporting nationalist parties waging struggle for independence in colonies of the Western powers including the British Empire. In its Seventh and the last Congress, the Comintern advised the communist parties in colonies to form ‘Popular United Fronts’ with the nationalist parties and join in their struggle under Lenin’s doctrine that there could be circumstances when the priorities of national liberation took precedence over those of the class struggle. With the gathering storm of another world war or ‘inter-imperialist war’ looming large over Europe, the Comintern advised Communist Parties to intensify their campaigns against fascist forces and, if a war breaks out, to work for turning the inter-imperialist war into a civil war to capture the political power. The new line was presented in The Anti-Imperialist People’s Front in India, a joint-publication of Rajini Palme Dutt and Ben Bradley of the CPGB, known as ‘Dutt-Bradley Thesis’. It appeared in Inprecor on 29 February, 1936 followed by another article The United National Front co-authored by Harry Polit, the General Secretary of the CPGB, R. Palme Dutt, and Ben Bradley on behalf of the Central Committee of CPGB. ‘Dutt-Bradley Thesis’ asserted that the Indian National Congress, though “not yet the united front of the Indian people in the national struggle, can play a great part and a foremost part in the work of realizing the Anti-Imperialist People’s Front”. The second article instructed CPI “to make the Indian National Congress the pivot of the United National Front” (2). Taking the cue, firstly the CPI merged its radical trade union front, the Red Trade Union Congress, returning to the fold of the larger AIUTC, at Calcutta in April 1935. Secondly, CPI members joined Congress in 1936, mainly working in the Congress Socialist party (CSP), which, till recently, they had been branding as ‘Social Fascists’. In 1935, Congress leaders Swami Sahajanand, Jai Prakash Narain and N.G. Ranga formed All-India Kisan Sabha enlisting support among Kisan movements in Punjab and attracting large crowds.
Admittedly, P.C. Joshi proved himself an able organizer in successfully rebuilding the party organization. For the first time, proper provincial committees of the party were formed and its membership surged. During this period, the party was particularly successful in building its wide support among intellectuals, teachers, writers, poets, playwrights, and the powerful Indian film industry with its massive outreach. Well-known party organizations like All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA), All India Students Federation, and Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) were formed during this period and greatly influenced the Indian society. CPI made effective penetration in All-India Kisan Sabha. In this unique phase of the left unity CPI workers, socialists of Congress Socialist Party, Roy’s followers, and the left-wing of the Congress represented by Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose were all working together in spite of their internal rivalries. This, once again, resulted in effective dominance of radical left on the working of Congress.
With the left’s combined support, Congress fared generally well in the 1936 provincial elections, winning majority in seven provinces and forming coalition governments in two other. Punjab was, however, an exception. By and large, the CPI’s influence had greatly increased. By 1937-1938, two communist party leaders, Zainal Abedine (Z.A.) Ahmed (U.P) and E.M.S. Namboodripad (Kerala) became All India Joint Secretaries of CSP while two other, Syed Sajjad Zaheer, the leader of the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA), and Soli Batliwala were inducted in its Executive Committee. Dr. K.M. Ashraf of CPI was now a prominent leader and close lieutenant of Jawaharlal Nehru. The party commenced publication of its first legal weekly organ, The National Front from Bombay in February 1938 with P.C. Joshi as its editor. In February 1938, Subhash Chandra Bose was elected Congress president. Gandhi and the Congress-right, including Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Parshad wanted to see the post of Congress president return to them at any cost. Gandhi had opposed the nomination of Bose as the second-term Congress President at its 1939 session at Tripura. Contesting against the express wish of Gandhi, Subhash Bose won the election. But the Congress’ rightists forced the issue and, threatening to split the party, resigned in protest. Gandhi publicly declared that it was his ‘personal defeat’. Clearly, Gandhi and the rightists had put the unity of the Indian Congress party at stake to regain President’s post. In this contest, the Socialist Congress Party and the CPI froze on their feet. Bose himself did not have the courage to let the Congress split, in spite of Roy urging him to go ahead. Roy told Bose, “The Congress must be given a new leadership, entirely free from the principles and pre-occupations of Gandhism which until now determined Congress policies. Gandhi’s principles cannot be reconciled with honest anti-imperialist politics” (3). The CPI and the Left buckled under an overwhelming pressure from Gandhi. Not getting enough decisive support, an exasperated Bose resigned from the post of Congress president on May 1, 1939. With this the left’s dominance over Congress came to an end. Roy formed a ‘League of Radical Congressmen’ in Calcutta but it proved short lived and he finally left the Congress in 1940. Isolated and humiliated, a frustrated Bose secretly crossed the Indian border into Afghanistan and then to Germany embarking on a military adventure, seeking help from Hitler’s Germany and subsequently from Imperial Japan against British Indian government. In an attempt to secure its position in the Congress, CPI encouraged its leaders holding dominant positions in CSP, particularly in Madras and Kerala, to incorporate CSP organisations in the CPI. According to S.V. Ghate, “in 1939, the signboard was changed [from CSP to CPI]” (4). The Congress’ rightist faction reacted strongly. The Congress Socialist Party in its Conference held at Ramgarh in 1940 expelled all communists from the party. CPI, now completely pushed to the side, however, remained in the fold of larger Indian National Congress. The grip of the rightists on Indian National Congress was complete.
The Second World War
After the Non-Aggression Pact being signed between Germany and Soviet Union in late August 1939 and the Second World War broking out in early September of 1939, the CPI initially termed it as an ‘imperialist war’— a war between rival imperialism for redistribution of the world markets among victors and laying the blame for it on the machinations of Anglo-French imperialists. Following the Comintern’s earlier advice, CPI issued a call for taking a proletarian path of mobilizing an armed revolutionary uprising taking advantage of the deflection of British attention towards the big war erupting in Europe. Indian National Congress also opposed the war and protested against British India’s unilateral decision to join the war, without taking Indian people into confidence. On October 2, 1939, within a few days of the declaration of war, communists organized an anti-war protest strike in Bombay in which more than 90,000 workers participated. They mobilized workers against financial burden of war being passed on to people disguised as the rising cost of food and other commodities. Under CPI leadership, 175,000 textile workers in Bombay went on strike demanding dearness allowance in March 1940 as part of a wave of strikes all over the country, including in Calcutta, Assam, Dhanbad, Kanpur, and Jamshedpur. Many communist workers were arrested in these anti-war demonstrations. By now CPI membership had expanded considerably. From a membership roll of less than 50 in early 1930’s, the party boasted a membership of about 17,000 full or ‘candidate’ members at the time it went into its first Congress in May-June 1943. A Home Department Political report of 1940 also conceded, ‘there is no question but that the communists have the whip in hand in Bengal, Andhra, Kerala and the Punjab where the Kisan movement is comparatively more developed’ (5).
But, in spite of its considerable gains, CPI had gone too far in its enthusiasm of working together in a ‘united front’ with Indian National Congress. It acted so subservient to the Congress leadership that it lost its own initiative and ability to take independent leadership positions. Ironically, in spite of it calling for a ‘Proletarian Path’ of ‘conquest of power by the Indian people’, CPI condemned Subhash Bose for launching a struggle without the sanction of the Congress leadership and accused him of disrupting ‘the very organ of struggle’, which was the National Congress. CPI’s Polit Bureau in its resolution of April 1940 stated, “We firmly believe that the National Congress represents the highest measure of unity our nation has so far achieved and our persistent effort would make nation-wide struggle through the Congress a reality” (6).
But, even more awkward and tight corners were in store in future for the CPI. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941, the Comintern abruptly changed its policy towards the war. Now terming the new phase of war as the ‘peoples war’, it also decided to give full support to the allied war efforts against Germany. The CPI performed a volte-face in public. In line with the new policy shift, in April 1942 CPI started supporting the war efforts in India. In response, many of its leading members were released from jail and the ban on the Communist Party was lifted. Hinting at the shift in official attitudes towards communists, a Home Department report in 1942 says, ‘[d]espite the dubious antecedents of many members, the Party is nevertheless an admirably centralized, largely disciplined body and under its zealous and none too scrupulous leaders, is hardly likely to plunge headlong into any premature and ill-conceived revolutionary movement’ (7). According to veteran CPI leader S.S. Mirajkar, apart from the influence from Soviet Party, some of CPI’s own leaders were to be blamed for this abrupt change in policy. Defending the CPI’s policy shift as also home-grown, he asserted that CPI’s internal thinking was also developing in the same direction. In an interview with Dr. Hari Dev Sharma, as part of the Oral History Project of the Nehru Memorial & Library (NMML) in late 1960’s in New Delhi, S.S. Mirajkar told that the ‘People’s War’ thesis was CPI’s own thinking. Admitting in hindsight that it was a wrong policy, he informed that B.T. Ranadive was in discussion with Dange and others and had drafted the thesis in Ajmer jail (8). This is also confirmed by another CPI leader from Kerala, K. Damudaran during his interview with Tariq Ali of New Left Review, London, in May, 1975. Damudaran told Tariq Ali, “Immediately on the outbreak of war, and in the year that followed, communists had been arrested in large numbers. In prison, controversies started on whether or not our line [opposing the war as an imperialist war] was correct. Then the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazi armies. Our controversies became ever more heated. Professor K.B. Krishna who was with us in jail wrote a set of Thesis developing the ‘People’s War’ line and advocating that now everything had changed and that communists should drop their anti-imperialist activities and their opposition to war… only a tiny minority was in favour of the ‘People’s War’ Thesis. Then some months later we heard that British party had changed its line and that Moscow was in favour of the change. Outside the jail, the party secretary P.C. Joshi, who was initially one of the strongest opponents of the ‘People’s War’ line, had to retract and start using his oratorical skills to convince party communists, and also the masses, of the importance of helping the war effort” (9).
Some sections of Congress, particularly in Punjab, were also divided over the policy towards war efforts. Reluctantly agreeing to the Congress’ directive to resign from municipal seats in its effort to oppose British war policy, the Gujranwala Congress protested against Congress policy. ‘Dr. Satyapal, one of the best known leaders of Punjab Congress and founder of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, refused to toe the party line… resigning as an MLA and giving up his Congress membership in July 1941’ (10).
The Indian communists in general were falling victim to what was coming their way through their seniors from the Soviet Union. As K. Damudaran had candidly admitted to Tariq Ali, “I must confess to you that I also believed that Bukharin, Zinoviev, Radek, and other victims of Stalinist purges were enemies of socialism… I think the main reason for this was that we identified ourselves completely with the Soviet Union… I feel that all this was a big tragedy, not just for us, but for the whole communist movement. We sincerely believed that in defending the Stalinism we were defending the Russian Revolution. In fact, we identified Stalinism with Marxism-Leninism” (11). The real problem of the Indian communists, however, was not the policy shifts taking place in the Soviet Union but their senseless swings to either far right or far left taking automatic cues from Soviet Union and mimicking those policies in India. Stalin and Soviet Union were leading their people and building a country and taking policy decisions in their own geo-political situation and military-strategic environment. Their decisions were good or bad in the context of protecting their own peoples’ achievements and defending their country in a hostile environment. If there were some suggestions or even directives from the Soviet Union or Comintern to follow a certain policy shift to complement their position, it was obligatory for CPI to make its own independent assessment of the domestic and international situation and taking actions in the given set of conditions in India. The Comintern was in any case, as Trotsky, to his credit, had rightly put it in 1933, was dead in its original intent and purpose. While seeking to remain part of a wider international movement, the independence of mind and action and maintaining a balance of proportion for the Communist Party of India was the real issue.
Following the new alliance between the Soviet Union and the Allied Powers, the CPI was legalized by the British Indian government in July 1942. As a gesture of goodwill from the Soviet Union, Comintern was also dissolved in order to demonstrate its willingness to dismantle the organization created as a central hub for the communist movements in other countries. Many known CPI workers and intellectuals of the left joined government and the British army for helping in war efforts. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a noted Urdu poet, and later emerging as a prominent communist leader in Pakistan, joined the Army. Later, he was promoted as a Colonel in the Propaganda & Information Service. The Indian National Congress leadership had a different assessment of the situation. With U.S.A. directly entering into the war on the side of Allied Powers after ‘Pearl Harbor’ incident in December 1941 clear signs had already emerged that regardless of its final outcome, the war will only hasten the process of decline of the Great Britain as a world power and that the leadership of the Western world will pass on to the U.S.A., if not to Germany. ‘At best’, as Virgil Jordan of the National Industrial Conference Board of the U.S.A. had observed, ‘England will become a junior partner in a new Anglo-Saxon imperialism’. Making a dramatic entry into the war, Japan had also launched its massive ‘southern expansion’ rapidly advancing its armies. Within few months, most of the East Asian countries, including Thailand, Singapore, Guam, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, Philippines, Indonesia, and Burma had fallen to Japan and her army was menacingly advancing towards Assam in India. Sensing a gradual decline of Britain over the course of war, Congress decided to push for its independence and launched the ‘Quit India Movement’ in August 1942. CPI again found itself at odds with general mood of the masses. While thousands of political workers were courting arrests across India in defiance of British repression, CPI was making awkward attempts for supporting the British government in its war efforts, and labeling the Congress workers as ‘saboteurs’. It is estimated that about 50,000 to 60,000 people were arrested and sent to jail during this movement. CPI members, at times, had to even swallow the bitter pill of actually going out and opposing the workers’ agitation and labour strikes (12) in the name of preventing disruptions in ‘people’s war’ production efforts.
For communists in India, 1942 proved to be a major turning point. As Shalini Sharma observes, “The communists clashed openly and irreconcilably with Congress over the Quit India campaign, creating a breach which carried over to India after independence and explains why the communists were so generally vilified for so long by mainstream nationalists. By deciding to shun the Quit India movement, the communists were seen to acknowledge their fealty to a foreign power in damaging ways which trumped their commitment to the nationalist cause” (13).
A well-known CPI leader of Punjab, Karam Singh Mann recalled of 1942 days, “that there was so much sympathy for the Quit India Movement in the villages that people would even turn their faces away from Sohan Singh Josh [a popular CPI and Kirti Kisan Party leader of Punjab], who was so popular among the peasantry that earlier he would be paraded on a horse and garlanded etc. Even among pro-Communist workers in Amritsar, it was difficult at this time for Communists to hold a meeting without 50 lathi-weilding youths to guard them” (14).
According to B.T. Ranadive, the communists believed that “Obstacles in the conduct of war would now hinder the defeat of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Powers.” Years later, in 1984, B.T. Ranadive, one of the local architects of the policy, explained how CPI visualized the end of the ‘People’s War’ marked by the Soviet forces marching in to liberate India. He said, “The communists also foresaw that now victory in the People’s War would unleash all the forces of Indian society and pit them in a final armed battle against the British; that at the end of the war the people of India would be marching in close alliance with the anti-imperialist forces of the world … that the imperialist Powers, who now had no option but to side with the USSR, would not be able to control the situation.” Even after about 32 years, Ranadive had the nerves to defend his Thesis saying, “[A]s subsequent events have shown, the Communist understanding was entirely correct” (15). Clearly, at least, some, if not all, of the top leaders of CPI lived in a different world!
The ‘People’s War’ thesis changed the alignment of domestic political forces in India. Jawaharlal Nehru was furious with communists and denounced them publicly while addressing the annual session of AITUC at Kanpur in February 1942. While Congress leadership was still essentially divided on the extent of leading masses in their enormous anti-colonial drive during the ‘Quit India’ movement, CPI failed to combine the task of leading in the national liberation struggle with the necessity of opposing the fascist forces. Most of the leaders of Indian Congress were in jail and the Congress was banned. Without a meaningful leadership on the streets to steer their struggle, the people, nevertheless, were pouring out their anger. By abstaining from the streets and clearly siding with the British government at this crucial juncture, CPI lost a unique opportunity to come to the leadership of the independence struggle. It allowed the Congress to emerge as the true liberator of the Indian ‘nation’.
Since its founding in India in 1925 and its re-organization in 1933, CPI couldn’t have held its full Party Congress due to incessant repression. Now enjoying the freedom of its newly found legal status, the CPI held its First Congress on 23 May-1 June, 1943. A new constitution of the party was adopted and a new Central Committee and the Polit Bureau were elected. P.C. Joshi, G. Adhikari, and B.T. Ranadive were members of the new Polit Bureau and Joshi continued as the Secretary General of the party. The Political resolution adopted by the First Congress boldly declared that “the supreme task before our people today is the defence of the motherland… the destiny of the nation is in our hands. The glorious red army under the leadership of Stalin and of the Bolshevik Communist Party of the Soviet Union is blasting the way to victory and freedom for us, for every people in the world” (16). In a classic case of self-delusion, the CPI went on to say, “We will unite the patriots to save the motherland shoulder to shoulder with the red army and the armies of the United Nations and win a free India in a FREE world” (17). It is reported that on either side of the 1st Congress dais…were hung two big portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah against the background of the [Indian] Congress and Muslim League’s flags’ (18). Blindly following the leads coming from the official analysts of the Soviet intellectual establishment, the communist parties of many countries in the western world also fell headlong into the trap. The American communist party leader was swept away in his euphoria of ‘united patriotic front’ with the U.S. government that it decided to even dissolve the Communist Party of U.S.A., declaring it was ‘no longer needed’! Indeed, it was class collaboration at its height in which Communist Party of India was not behind many others.
1. Russia’s Long Twentieth Century: Voices, Memories, Contested Perspectives, Ed. Choi Chatterjeee, Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, Deborah A. Field, Routledge, London, May 2016, p. 117. 2. Suniti Kumar Ghosh, India and the Raj: 1919-1947, Vol.II, p. 45.
3. Samaren Roy, M.N. Roy: A Political Biography, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1997, p. 116-117.
4. ‘Making of a Thesis’ Interview of S.V. Ghate by A.G. Noorani in Frontline (The Hindu Magazine), Vol 29-Issue 8: Apr 21-May 04, 2012.
5. Quoted in Shalini Sharma, Radical Politics in Colonial Punjab: Governance and Sedition, Routledge, London, 2010, p. 93.
6. D.N. Gupta, Communism and Nationalism in Colonial India: 1939-1945, SAGE Publications, New Delhi, India, 2008, p. 127.
7. Shalini Sharma, op. cited., p. 93.
8. ‘Making of a Thesis’ Interview of S.S. Mirajkar by A.G. Noorani op cited.
9. ‘Memoirs of an Indian Communist Here’, by Tariq Ali, New Left Review, Sep-Oct, 1975. 10. Shalini Sharma, op. cited, p. 98.
11. ‘Making of a Thesis’ Interview of S.S. Mirajkar by A.G. Noorani op cited.
12. ‘Making of a Thesis’ Interview of S.S. Mirajkar by A.G. Noorani op cited.
13. Shalini Sharma, op. cited, p. 91.
14. Mirdula Mukherjee, Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, SAGE Publications India, New Delhi, 2004, p. 211.
15. ‘The Role Played by Communists in the Freedom Struggle of India’ by B.T. Ranadive in Social Scientist, Vol.12, No.9 (Sep 1984).
16. K.N. Ramachandran, From First to Ninth Party Congress: Nine Decades of the Communist Movement in India, Umakant, New Delhi, 2011, p. 18.
18. Ibid. p. 71.
Chapter 3 to be continued…