By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued)
Kirti Communists in Punjab
After the periods of significant unrests of Ghadar Party (1914-1916), Jallianwala Bagh (1919) and Babbar Akali Jatthas (1920-1925) in Punjab, a monthly Kirti (Worker) journal was published by Santok Singh from Amritsar in February 1926. Santok Singh and Rattan Singh of Ghadar Party had been to Soviet Union for training and had attended the fourth congress of the Comintern in 1922 (16). The first Kirti conference was held in Hoshiarpur on 6-7 October, 1927. Sohan Singh Josh presided over the meeting that demanded freedom of India, eight-hour work day for factory workers, and expressed its support for the Chinese freedom struggle and Russian revolution. The second conference under Tara Singh was held on 17 October, 1927 in Lyallpur. In early 1928, Sohan Singh Josh and Bhag Singh Canadian called for a larger conference at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1928. Over 60 workers attended the conference. Among those who attended Mir Abdul Majid and Firozuddin Mansoor were among the first trainees of the Communist University in Moscow during 1921. Kirti Kisan Party was formed with Sohan Singh Josh elected as secretary and M.A. Majid as joint secretary. It’s headquarter was at Amritsar. The second conference of the Kirti Kisan Party held on 28-30 September, 1928 at Lyallpur. The Communist leaders from other parts of India, including S.A. Dange, Philip Spratt, and Ben Bradley also attended this conference. Kirti Kisan Party held many peasant conferences in various towns, including, Rohtak, Sargodha, Hoshiarpur, and Lahore. Party’s leadership including, Sohan Singh Josh, Kedar Nath Sehgal, and M.A. Majid were arrested in March 1929 in Meerut Conspiracy case.
The aftereffects of the world economic recession in 1929 marked the beginning of a new unrest in Punjab, mainly emanating from its rural areas. Former soldiers of the British Indian Army, now facing extreme hardship due to economic depression and rising cost of living joined peasant movements. Ex-soldier Risaldar Anup Singh marched to Lahore with a band of about 1,000 ex-soldiers demanding for the lands promised to them by the army officials at the time of recruitment but denied after de-mobilization. For British administration, Anup Singh’s Morcha was a dangerous turn in the rural unrest in Punjab. Nehru attended the Naujawan Bharat Sabha’s (NJBS) conference in August. Despite the policy leads given by the Comintern for breaking off relations with the Indian Congress, the demarcation line between CPI and the Congress in Punjab was still unclear. The conflict between the new ‘party line’ apologetically pushed down from the top and the ground realities caused confusion and the agitation was gaining momentum. Although, an anti-Congress tone was noticeable at the Kirti Kisan Conference held in Lahore in December 1929 but the speakers in the Kirti Kisan Political Conference in Hissar on 21-22 February, 1930 openly supported the Congress’ Civil Disobedience movement. The Congress had decided in December 1929 at Lahore to launch civil disobedience movement and declared 26 January, 1930 as the date for the complete independence of India. At this time, a circular letter dated 14 January 1930 issued by the Chief Secretary of Punjab addressed to the Commissioners and the Police administration in Punjab said, “The Congress has not only declared itself the enemy of the Government as at present established, and of the British connection, but also of all stable interests in the country… Under the guidance of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the new Congress creed is derived from Moscow…[he] directly attacked the important interests on which the stability of the country depends… the landed proprietors, and it is clear that the independent India which the Congress has in view will not contain this class. The land is either to be nationalized or divided among the peasants” (17). But, with the signing of Gandhi-Irwin Pact in March 1930, however, the Indian Congress leadership abruptly called off the Civil Disobedience movement.
As Mirdula Mukherjee observed, “the Kirti Kisan Party was able to achieve a significant enhancement of its influence among peasants in some of the central districts of Punjab and had been able to contribute to the process of their organization and politicization” (18). While Congress was more effective in the districts of Rohtak, Karnal and Hissar (present day Haryana in India), the Kirti Kisan Party was stronger in the central districts of Amritsar, Lahore, Sheikhupura, and Lyallpur, most of which are in Pakistan today. Now, the trend of convergence between radical small peasant organizations and moderate middle-peasant organizations was also emerging. The Zamindar League of Sir Chhotu Ram of Rohtak agreed for holding joint session of and uniting the Punjab Zamindar League with the Punjab Zamindar Sabha (or Kisan Sabha) at Raiwind on 4 April 1931. The session was reportedly attended by large number of peasants; some estimates are as high as close to 10,000. The Zamindar League of Sheikhupura held its annual meeting in May and changed its name to Kisan Sabha. A Ghadarite Kirti leader Teja Singh Swatantar was elected as the president. By November, the Punjab Kirti Kisan Sabha had grown so influential and confident that it called for affiliation of all Kisan Sabhas, Mazdoor Sabhas and Kirti Kisan parties in Punjab, Delhi and NWFP with the Kirti Kisan Sabha (19). The party also held a conference in Karachi in 1931, and at Nankana Sahib in 1932 in which reportedly over 2,000 delegates attended. The party celebrated May Day in 1933 at Amritsar and Lahore. Around this time the Ghadar Party in U.S.A had given its second call for return to India (see Chapter-3).
Based on their assessment of the failure of first Ghadar Party rebellion in 1914-1915 due to lack of ideology and proper political and military training, the Ghadar Party’s new president Giyani Singh and his colleague Rattan Singh had travelled extensively in early 1920s in the U.S.A and South America motivating party sympathizers to get formal military and political training for joining the struggle for independence (20). Several batches of Ghadar Party volunteers travelled to Soviet Union. They were enrolled in a typical two-year course of ideological, political and military training at the Communist University in Moscow during 1926-1935. Many trainees recruited in USA, Canada, and South America were sent to Moscow. Teja Singh Swatantar was also one of them. In all, about 76 volunteers received training in Moscow. Interestingly, in this effort an element of ideological puritanism was also at work. For example, one of the recruit, Hazara Singh Hamdam, was rejected by the Moscow University and sent back home owing to his family having too much land (30 acres) in Punjab. He was categorized as a ‘Kulak’ (rich peasant) and, therefore, unfit for becoming a ‘communist revolutionary’ (21).
After receiving their political training in Moscow, these workers started arriving in India. According to an official file note in November 1933 as quoted by Mirdula Mukherjee, the Director of Intelligence Bureau said, “if it was not for this batch of ‘Soviet agents’ that had just arrived last month, he would be in favour of releasing the six state prisoners—Ghulam Muhammad, Fazal Elahi, Abdul Waris, Harjap Singh, Ehsan Elahi, Karam Singh—arrested in 1930… But he did not want them to establish contact with these Soviet agents therefore he was in favour of postponing their release” (22). Almost all of the Moscow trained Ghadar Party volunteers joined and worked as the mainstay of Kirti Kisan Party. They were commonly known as ‘Kirti Communists’.
In late June 1933, Karam Singh Mann, a barrister who had returned from London called a meeting of left workers at Lahore for revival and reorganization of CPI in Punjab, which was almost disintegrated after the massive arrests in Meerut Conspiracy case. Mann, together with Sajjad Zaheer, was a member of the ‘London Group’ of bright, young Indian students who had converted to communist ideology under the influence of CPGB luminaries like Rajini Palme Dutt and Shahpur Saklatwala in London. Meanwhile, Sohan Singh Josh and M.A. Majid were also released in November 1933 after completing their jail terms. By April 1934, most of the ‘left’ workers were re-organized in Punjab in a new communist group that worked in the front organization of the Anti-Imperialist League. This Punjab group was later integrated into CPI at the time of its revival under P.C. Joshi. Fazal Elahi Qurban and Abdul Waris were also released in March 1934 and joined the CPI group.
CPI was declared illegal in July 1934 and the Kirti Kisan Party was also banned in September 1934. Its journal Kirti ceased publication. It, however, reappeared as weekly Kirti Lehar from Meerut in 1935. It continued publication until 1939. Communists working in Kirti Kisan Sabhas and CPI had formed Qarza (Debt) Committees for cancellation of the mounting rural debts burdening the peasants. Meanwhile, Punjab politics had undergone a significant shift. The Communal Award of 1932 and the Government of India Act of 1935 had far reaching impact on Punjab politics. The electoral balance between towns and countryside was recast, further reducing urban seats from one-fourth to about one-seventh of the rural constituencies; the towns now had only nineteen seats compared to 130 rural seats. This severe curtailment of towns’ sphere of influence greatly weakened and almost destroyed the Congress in Punjab, which was already divided in two factions after the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. Its identity was starkly reduced to representing Hindu trading and moneylender interests in the province, which in turn changed its relationship with the radical left. The Muslims in India had generally been disappointed and were drifting away from the Congress. To save it from near extinction, the Punjab Congress had to re-brand itself to appeal to the larger rural electorate and to forge alliances with radical socialists and communists in the Punjab. A radicalized Indian National Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru initiated its expansion drive to reach out to the Punjabi peasants. By 1936, the Comintern and CPI had changed their line in favour of the ‘united front’ with Indian Congress and the Congress Socialist Party. As the CPI got better organized after its revival by P.C. Joshi, its organization in Punjab became more visible and distinct in and out of Kirti Kisan Party. The CPI group was led by Sohan Singh Josh, and Karam Singh Mann. CPI Punjab was bringing out a magazine Communist in Urdu and Gurmukhi and the Kirti group brought out Lal Jhanda (Red Flag). The Kirtis in general had a strong streak of Ghadar party tradition among themselves. Their primary motive for political activity was anti-British anger.
The communists were now freely working in both the organizations. Seven communists were nominated by the Congress for the elections due in January 1937. These included, Sohan Singh Josh, Teja Singh Swatantar, Kabul Singh, Harjap Singh, Bibi Raguhbir Kaur, Mange Ram and Baba Rur Singh. Karam Singh Mann was active in Mian Iftikharuddin’s election campaign. From the Congress’ High Command, Jawaharlal Nehru frequently visited Punjab and addressed meetings during 1937 election campaign. One of the British police report says, “There is a great activity among Socialists and communists in this district in preparation for a conference which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is expected to attend. … Much of the speaking is actionable and all of it is objectionable and dangerous when delivered to illiterate audience. It is a crude blend of socialism, communism and hardly veiled sedition, and full vintage is being taken of any local grievance, real or imaginary, to stir up discontent’ (23). CPI leader Sohan Singh Josh wrote in his memoirs on his being elected in 1937, “Before the election I was just a district leader. But after I was elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly…I overnight became one of the leaders of entire Punjab. I was welcomed and honoured everywhere—a Communist getting elected to the Assembly was a big and new thing then in the eyes of the Punjabi people” (24). The 1936-1937 election campaign contributed significantly to the process of politicization of peasants. The election campaign was galvanized on the issue of anti-British or pro-British political stance of candidates. In this backdrop, province-wise Kisan movements were organized. An All-India Kisan Sabha was already established at Lucknow in April 1936 with Sohan Singh Josh and Munshi Ahmed Din as delegates from Punjab. The Punjab was represented on All-India Kisan Committee by Karam Singh Mann, Sohan Singh Josh, Munshi Ahmad Din, and others.
A Punjab Kisan Committee was formed on 7 March 1937 in Lahore with Baba Jwala Singh as its president. Its first conference held in October 1937 in Lyallpur was presided over by Sajjad Zaheer. The Punjab Kisan Committee played a leading role in 1938 peasant agitation across Punjab. About 25,000 peasants & agri-tenants went on strike refusing to pick cotton and sow wheat in Multan and Montgomery districts. Similar strikes and agitations were carried out in other parts of Khanewal, Multan, Lyallpur, and Lahore. The agitation of Lahore Kisan Committee turned into an All-Punjab Morcha (battle-front) with jatthas (bands) marching on foot to Lahore from Amritsar, Jalandhar, Gurdaspur, Lyallpur, Firozpur, Hoshiarpur, and Ambala. Close to six thousand peasants were arrested and jailed during this movement (25). The Lahore Morcha lasted for about five months till September 1939, when the Second World War broke out.
Initially, both CPI and the Indian National Congress strongly opposed the involvement of India into an imperialist war in Europe. In 1939, Sohan Singh Josh of CPI was the general secretary of Punjab Congress and in 1940 Mian Iftikharuddin who was very close to CPI became the president of Punjab Congress. In June 1940, many workers of Kirti Kisan Party, CPI and Indian Congress were arrested. With a view to isolate these radical political leaders from other workers and prisoners, the government decided to put them all in an isolated camp at Deoli in Rajasthan. These prisoners included most of the senior CPI and Kirti Kisan party leaders. The Communists in CPI had been working together with Kirti Communists in Kirti Kisan Party (KKP) and the Congress, but there has been an undercurrent of mistrust between communists of CPI group and the Kirti Communists of Ghadar Party background. The CPI leadership always had a feeling of disquiet about the Kirti Communists because of their frequent display of independent anarchist tendencies. They viewed Kirtis’ commitment to communist ideology as being driven more by Ghadarite anti-colonial hatred rather than a scientific understanding of Marxist theory. Deoli Camp confinement provided an opportunity to the senior CPI leaders and Kirti Communists to come closer to each other. After some initial discussions, a ‘unity committee’ was formed; Bhagat Singh Bilga, Gurmukh Singh Lalton, and Achhar Singh Chinna represented Kirti Communists whereas Karam Singh Mann, Sohan Singh Josh, and Abdul Aziz represented the CPI. Prominent Kirti leader Teja Singh Swatantar also made an appeal from Campbellpur Jail for forging organizational unity in the party. Kirti Party decided on 16 Jul 1941 to fully merge with CPI and the merger formally took effect on 28 May 1942 when CPI Punjab held its reorganization conference after its leaders were released from Jail including, Teja Singh, Bhagat Singh Bilga, Achhar Singh Chinna, Iqbal Singh Handal from Campbellpur, Sohan Singh Josh, Firozuddin Mansoor, Fazal Elahi Qurban, and Karam Singh Mann from Gujrat (26). The new Punjab Committee had Sohan Singh Josh as the Secretary; Iqbal Singh Handal was elected central committee member. The Kirtis, much to their distaste also grudgingly accepted (at least, for a while) CPI’s new ‘Peoples War’ line supporting the British government in its war efforts. And so did the All-India Kisan Sabha and the Punjab Kisan Committee (27).
To their credit, and perhaps due to somewhat different social norms in Punjab, Kirti Kisan and Communist activists succeeded in mobilizing a sizable number of Punjabi women in radical politics (28). These women underwent rigors of a radical communist movement in a colonial state, including incarceration in jails but remaining lifelong activists, rising to prominence in left politics of India. Sushila Kumari Chain, Dhan Kaur and Usha organized study circles and brought several women into radical politics. Kirti Kisan Party circulars of 1941 and 1942 indicate party’s efforts to encourage active participation of women in the Kisan Committees and Mazdoor Sabhas. In a provincial conference held in Lahore in February 1942, 100 women delegates attended. In this meeting,
Progressive Women’s Conference was formed. Bibi Raghubir Kaur was elected as the president and Sitadevi (of Congress) and Baji Rashida Begum (of Muslim League) as vice presidents, and Sushila Kumari was the general secretary. By March 1942, the membership of the organization was said to have risen to 2000 (29).
16. After his return to India in 1923, Santok Singh spent two years of confinement orders within his village. After his release, Santok Singh had started Kirti but he soon died in May 1927.
17. Mirdula Mukherjee, Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, SAGE Publications India, New Delhi, 2004, p. 90.
18. Mirdula Mukherji, p. 105.
19. Mirdula Mukherji, p. 104.
20. ‘Some Aspects of the Communist Movement in Colonial Punjab: Testimony of the Participants’ by Surinder Singh of Punjab University, Chandigarh.
21. ‘Colonial Dominance and Indigenous Response’ by Hari Vasudevan and Anjan Sarkar in Aspects of India’s International Relations, 1700-2000: South Asia and the World, Ed. Jayantha Kumar Ray, Centre for Studies in Civilization, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 39-40.
22. Surinder Singh, p. 116.
23. Home Political File 18/6/36, Fortnightly Repor,t June 1936, NAI quoted in Shalini Sharma, p. 71.
24. Shalini Sharma, p. 82.
25. Quoted in Mirdula Mukherjee, p. 89.
26. Ajmer Sidhu, From Ghadar to Naxalbari: Baba Bhuja Singh, An Untold Story, Chandigarh, 2013, p. 68.
27. Mirdula Mukherjee, p. 208.
28. Raghubir Kaur, Ghulam Fatima, Sushila Kumari, and Shakuntla Sharda were few prominent names. Sushila was the sister of Amolak Ram and later she became wife of Chain Singh whereas Shakuntla was the sister of Shiv Kumar Sharda and later married Kunj Bihari Lal. All of them were Kirti activists. Sushila also became a formal communist party member.
29. Surinder Singh, op cited.
Chapter 4… To be Continued