History textbooks would have us believe that the decades of the 1920s and 1930s belonged to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It was Gandhi’s electrifying impact on the Indian people that changed the nature of the freedom struggle and shook the mighty British empire with first the non-cooperation movement and then the civil disobedience movement. Photographs of the period in textbooks show wave after wave of stoic Indian men and women being beaten by policemen of the Raj, on horseback and on foot. No amount of abuse, physical and verbal, elicits a violent response from the freedom fighters—Gandhi’s apostles of ahimsa and passive resistance.
While there is little doubt that the huge mobilisations that Gandhi could inspire and lead took the movement for Independence forward, his non-violent soldiers were not, however, the only ones fighting for freedom.
From as far back as the days of the East India Company, the Raj and then into the early years of the British Raj, Indians violently opposed the British loot, oppression and infamy that diminished them. Despite the ferocity with which they were suppressed, they continued with insurrections, big and small, at different times in different parts of British India. Even after the middle class-led articulation for modest rights of citizenship for the subjects of the empire developed into an all-India movement for gradual, constitutional change, eruptions of violent opposition to the British rule continued. In Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province and Bengal, groups of educated youths formed militant organisations such as the Ghadr Party, the Anushilan movement, the Indian Republican Army, and the Hindustan Republican Army, which later renamed itself the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, and displayed the greatest daring and heroism in individual and group acts of terror against some of the most cruel representatives of the empire.
The leaders and members of these groups—Sohan Singh Josh, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Surya Sen and many others—refused to accept non-violence as the basis of their work. Compromises of the Congress and its leader, Gandhi, suggested to them that if non-violence is raised to an ethic, it might lead as well to surrender. These were not people who lifted up violence to an ethic either. As Bhagat Singh wrote in prison just before his execution in 1931: “The romance of the violent methods alone, which was so prominent amongst our predecessors, was replaced by serious ideas. No more mysticism, no more blind faith. Realism became our cult. Use of force is justifiable when resorted to in a matter of terrible necessity; non-violence as policy is indispensable for all mass movements.”
Subodh Roy (1916-2006) was one of the members of this valiant band. His is an extraordinary story of a revolutionary life that began at the age of 14 and ended only with death, when he was nearing 90. Closer to home, both my parents, Prem Sahgal (1917-1992) and Lakshmi Sahgal (nee Swaminadhan) (1914-2012), were ardent nationalists who, like Subodh Roy, did not believe that non-violence alone would defeat the British rule. It is for this reason that they joined the Indian National Army (INA), which Subodh Roy would hear about when he went on his mission to Burma (now Myanmar). “The INA was made up of former Indian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and who later fought against the British forces under the leadership of Subhash Chandra Bose,” Subodh Roy writes in his memoir, The Chittagong Armoury Raid . “Some of the conscripts were killed in the battlefield fighting the Japanese army. I pay my respectful homage and express my pride and sorrow in their memory once again. They gave their best for our better tomorrow.” Japanese fascism appealed to none of them; what appealed to them was the courage of the revolutionaries to fight against a system that seemed unmovable by peaceful means.
Commitment to a socialistic India It was not, however, a belief in “violence” or “violent methods” alone that inspired people as disparate as Subodh Roy, Shiv Verma, Lakshmi Swaminadhan and Ajoy Ghosh. Their non-adherence to Gandhi’s thinking and methods went beyond the issue of non-violent or violent tactics. It emerged from the different dreams they held for India’s freedom. Their commitment was to a socialistic India, however hazy their comprehension of socialism might have been —an India free of poverty, discrimination, casteism and communal differences. Gandhi’s Ram Rajya, his belief in the benevolence of landlords and capitalists, his adherence to varnashrama dharma and his abhorrence of militancy, revolutionary audacity and class struggle were all, according to them, in keeping with the Swaraj of his dreams in which inequality, poverty, gender differences and hierarchy would all remain largely unchanged. Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence, according to them, was essential for the flawed and compromised freedom that he was fighting for and they would have none of it.
Not surprisingly, therefore, many of these revolutionaries joined the Communist Party after coming out of various jails at different times. Many had to wait for the birth of Independence before they were released, but once that happened, it was to the Communist Party of India (CPI) that they headed. They went to the CPI because of its commitment to revolutionary change. Among these revolutionaries were those who were ready to defy death. Freedom fighters of the stature of Sohan Singh Josh, Ganesh Ghosh, Ananta Singh, Ajoy Ghosh, Shiv Verma, and, of course, Subodh Roy and much later, Capt. Lakshmi herself, became proud members of the CPI and, later, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This was because none of them doubted the absolute commitment of the Communists to the common people, to the workers and peasants, to those who were condemned to die of starvation by the British government.
In 1938, Subodh Roy came out of a jail in Kolkata where he was brought from the Cellular Jail in the Andaman islands. He did not head for his home in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) but went straight to meet the legendary Communist leader Muzaffar Ahmad. After meeting Ahmad, Subodh Roy met two other revolutionary comrades who had also been in the Andamans and had joined the party on their release. These two comrades had already started working in working class areas of the city. Subodh Roy joined them. Much later, he returned to Chittagong to work among the peasantry and to participate in the massive relief work organised by the CPI during the great Bengal famine of 1943. This coincided with the brief “legal” interlude that the party enjoyed.
Subodh Roy writes: “It was only the Communist Party of India, allowed to work openly only a few months ago, that protested against the repression of the people and actively sympathised with them. As a result of the defiant stand of the Communist Party, the British authorities in India became furious. Confidential correspondence took place between the Viceroy and his Executive Council about reimposing the ban on the Communist Party of India (records of which can be found in the National Archives of India). This proves that the Communist Party of India surrendered neither its separate identity nor its ideology to the British rulers.”
Politics of hatred The revolutionaries were not the only group that did not agree with Gandhi’s methods or tactics. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha, whom many refer to as “nationalist” organisations, also differed with him. Two important members of this very different pantheon are V.D. Savarkar and Nathuram Godse. Savarkar began his political life as a revolutionary, committed to India’s freedom. He participated in at least three “actions” relating to the killing of British officers and administrators and he was also jailed in the Andaman islands. Godse was his devoted and ardent follower. It is extremely instructive to compare the trajectories that their careers took with those of the revolutionaries who became Communists.
Savarkar abhorred the concept of non-violence. “I want all Hindus to get themselves reanimated and reborn into a martial race,” he said. Savarkar’s criticism of non-violence did not come from the broad strategic orientation of the revolutionaries —those who understood that the non-violence of Gandhi led to a compromise with the social order of their times. Savarkar came at Gandhi with machismo—he was discomforted by the lack of masculinity in Gandhi’s politics. This is the reason why he called Gandhi a “sissy” and a “crazy lunatic”. The gap between Savarkar’s sexism and the revolutionaries’ realism (as Bhagat Singh put it) could not be wider.
Between 1913 and 1920, Savarkar petitioned the British government several times, in the most craven language, to release him from prison. His last petition, of 1920, is exemplary:
“And as to my revolutionary tendencies in the past: it is not only now for the object of sharing the clemency but years before this have I informed of and written to the government in my petitions (1918, 1914) about my firm intention to abide by the constitution and stand by it as soon as a beginning was made to frame it by Mr Montague. Since that the Reforms and then the Proclamation have only confirmed me in my views and recently I have publicly avowed my faith in and readiness to stand by the side of orderly and constitutional development…. I am sincere in expressing my earnest intention of treading the constitutional path and trying my humble best to render the hands of the British dominion a bond of love and respect and a mutual help…. I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period that the government would indicate....”
It is necessary to compare the cowardice of Savarkar, who has been given the title of “Veer” (brave) by his admirers, with the exemplary courage displayed later by the young Bhagat Singh as he faced certain death in the Lahore jail. He wrote in agony to his father who had petitioned the British government to consider some more facts before sentencing his son: “My life is not so precious, at least to me, as you may probably think it to be. It is not at all worth buying at the cost of my principles.”
In 1924, the British Raj freed Savarkar from prison. He honoured his commitment made to the empire for the rest of his life. It was not just cowardice that was responsible for this. Savarkar had veered around to the belief that much more important than fighting the British was the need to fight Muslims. It was this that endeared him to Godse, who belonged not only to Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha but also to the RSS, an organisation that kept aloof from the freedom movement from its very inception and remained single-minded in its commitment to organising Hindus against Muslims.
A streak of viciousness is evident in Savarkar, something absent in the revolutionaries of the Andaman prison. Savarkar writes in the post-Andaman period of his youth, recalling, “joyfully”, how as a 12-year-old, he led a “gang of schoolmates to stone the village mosque and smash its windows and tiles, in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots”. He recalls, “We vandalised the mosque to our heart’s content.” After the Andamans, Savarkar would fester into a politics of hatred of Muslims. This was the politics that led to the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. It is the politics of Hindutva.
Politics of freedom The revolutionaries, on the other hand, held fast to the politics of freedom and of the construction of an India on the basis of justice and equality. While they criticised Gandhi and the Congress party, they never for a moment forgot the role both played in the movement for independence. They never underestimated the electrifying effect that Gandhi and his leadership had on the Indian masses. Subodh Roy writes that as they were preparing to hoist the Congress flag over the Chittagong armoury, he and his comrades told the Indian sentries— Bhag jao, abhi Gandhi raja ho gaya (Run away! Now Gandhi has become the king).
Much later in his memoirs, Subodh Roy recalls that during the trial of those accused in the Chittagong armoury raid, the news of Motilal Nehru’s death was received. He writes: “We decided that we would ask for the trial to be adjourned for the day to express our grief for the death of the [former Congress] president. Ganesh Ghosh addressed the tribunal from the prisoners’ dock and asked for adjournment of the hearing for the day. But the president of the tribunal became furious with us, as was his usual practice and rejected our plea…. We started singing Nazrul Islam’s patriotic songs from our dock…. Finally, the judges conferred among themselves and adjourned the case for the day…. We fought for the honour of our country, for the honour of the Congress party and upheld the dignity of the people.” Even Motilal Nehru’s contribution to the national struggle could not be minimised. This was the width of the revolutionaries’ imagination. They did not want to put forward, as Savarkar did, a shrivelled view of the world.
Commitment to secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity was an integral and organic part of the consciousness of the revolutionaries. They acutely sensed it was only the common and united struggle of the Indian people that would ensure the freedom that they were willing to die for. They realised that the weapon of communalism was being used not only by the British to postpone the day of reckoning but by all those for whom the unity of the oppressed and working people constituted a threat to their own status and power.
Lakshmi Sahgal and Prem Sahgal did not celebrate on August 15, 1947, the Independence Day that they and their comrades had done so much to make possible. The division of the country, the communal madness that pervaded and polluted the atmosphere, the butchery and mindless brutality that seemed to be endless were all reminders of the fact that this was not the freedom that they had fought for.
Lakshmi, a medical doctor, immediately immersed herself in tending to the sick whom few seemed to care about. She worked during the day at a makeshift hospital for the refugees streaming in from vivisected Punjab and, at night, she was the only woman doctor who would enter the narrow and overcrowded lanes and by-lanes of the Muslim-dominated areas of Kanpur. The revolutionaries who joined the Communist Party in Bengal and Punjab were in the forefront with their other comrades, protecting the victims of violence, guarding neighbourhoods that had come under attack, working in the refugee camps and, unflinchingly, doing whatever they could in defence of communal harmony that seemed to be disappearing forever. The anguish this was causing them was expressed in the poetry of the great Communist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, yeh daagh daagh ujala, yeh shab-gazida sahar ….
Throughout his memoirs, Subodh Roy speaks about the generosity and support of anonymous Muslims to the cause of the Chittagong revolutionaries. In the last few paragraphs, Subodh Roy mourns the communal polarisation that has overtaken people in his beloved hometown, a polarisation that forces him to find a new home.
The contribution of the revolutionaries to the cause of India’s freedom are immense but often forgotten or belittled because history is written by the victors. In this case, the ruling classes and the Congress party. Today, even that history is in danger of being rewritten to glorify those who, while they stood aloof from the struggle for freedom, have the blood of its tallest leader, Gandhi, on their hands. This is, however, not their only crime. They are also guilty of helping divide India then and continue to do so now.
Subodh Roy spent his entire life in the Communist movement. He was a member of the West Bengal State Committee of the CPI(M) and ran the State Committee office for a long time. There was a quiet glow about him, a self-effacing quality. Subodh Roy’s story in his own words is like a soft ray of light that illuminates much that is true, inspiring and of much value. The book provides a glimpse not only into his politics, but into his personality as well. This is a must-read book.
Subhashini Ali is a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).