Of freedom and revolution

Print edition : June 17, 2005

Memoirs: 25 Communist Freedom Fighters; People's Democracy Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pages 194, Rs.125.

COMMUNIST biography is among the most neglected fields in the historiography of the freedom struggle. The lives of communists have been ignored not only by the mainstream nationalist historians and the latter day historians of the `subaltern' and `post-colonial' variety, but also studiedly avoided by the major Left historians themselves. There must be some reason why major figures such as Muzaffar Ahmad, Hasrat Mohani and B.T. Ranadive never get written about. It is only the occasional, often amateur, attempts by people associated with them, which appear erratically as small write-ups in the magazines and newspapers of the communist parties, and hardly get noticed beyond the circle of their regular readers.

A retelling of the lives of communist freedom fighters today implies assertion of the Left's place in the history of the nation: a place denied to it in national chronicles and in the way history textbooks are written and history is taught.

The book under review was brought out on the occasion of the 18th congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). As the title suggests, it contains 25 memoirs of or articles about veteran communist leaders who were freedom fighters. The memoirs were first published in 1997 and 1998 in the columns of People's Democracy, the organ of the CPI(M) during the course of the golden jubilee celebrations of India's Independence, as a part of two series - People's Diary of the Freedom Struggle and Memoirs of a Communist Freedom Fighter. Some of them have been brought together in a book form, with an introduction by Sitaram Yechury and a general essay by Jyoti Basu.

The communist freedom fighters represented here are: Muzaffar Ahmad, Ganesh Ghosh, Hemanta Ghoshal, A.K. Gopalan, Qazi Nazrul Islam, K.P. Janakiammal, Pandit Kishori Lal, `Kaka' Mithalal, Amalendu Mukherjee, Bankim Mukherjee, Samar Mukherjee, Satish Pakrashi, Bhagabati Panigrahi, Shamrao and Godavari Parulekar, P. Krishna Pillai, P. Ramamurthy, Vimal Ranadive, Ahilya Rangnekar, Lakshmi Sehgal, Rahul Sankrityayana, Niranjan Sen Gupta, Durgadas Sikdar, Major Jaipal Singh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Shiv Verma. One or two sketches are in the first person; others are reminiscences by other comrades, of their associations with them; some were narrated to Manini Chatterji, a senior journalist.

IN the present international and national context, when the nation itself is being defined in elitist and right-wing terms, these memoirs are a reminder of what the freedom struggle was all about. They remind us that the fight for social justice, secularism and democracy, of which the movements for women's equality, abolition of caste, and the rights of peasants, workers and tribal people were an integral part, was a realistic proposition and a serious goal for these veterans. For them, as for the majority of Indian people, freedom meant not merely throwing off the British yoke but also freedom from their own local oppressors. These memoirs say it in so many ways.

The discerning reader will find much to learn. Every communist was inspired by the idea of freedom for the nation. The resolution for complete independence was moved for the first time by two communists - Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Swami Kumarananda - at the Ahmedabad session of the Indian National Congress in 1921. This was the stage, in the 1920s and 1930s, when communists were active within the Congress party. The British, for their part, always considered the communists their main enemy, and foisted three conspiracy cases against them: the Peshawar Conspiracy Case in 1922-24, the Kanpur Conspiracy Case in 1924, and the Meerut Conspiracy Case in 1929. Later, in complete contrast to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (given the title `Veer' by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh), who bought his freedom by seeking a pardon and giving a written commitment to refrain from political activities, there were scores of revolutionaries who served their full term in jail and subsequently became respected leaders of the Communist Party of India. Among them are Ganesh Ghosh, whose biographical sketch is featured in this book, and Subodh Roy, who was felicitated at the CPI(M) congress in April, 2005. Many learnt their Marxism from their communist jail-mates. They were also inspired by the 1917 revolution in Russia, and the efforts to build socialism in a backward country.

Former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu flanked by Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Lakshmi Sehgal, after releasing the book at the CPI(M)'s party congress in New Delhi in April.-V. SUDERSHAN

The 1930s and 1940s were the years when the communists not only demarcated their politics from that of the Congress, but also gave a new turn to the freedom struggle itself, linking the protest movements of the workers, peasants, students and women with mainstream nationalism, creating a symbiosis between social transformation and political freedom. The Tebhaga and Telengana struggles and the Adivasi revolts in Worli, led by the communists, were instrumental in asserting the rights of the peasants and tribal people within the emerging nation. The Indian National Army naval mutiny inspired the first civil response in the form of general hartals and strikes thanks to the communists and trade unions in the region. The live link between national liberation and the communist movement can be clearly discerned in the lives of the communists described in this book.

WHAT impresses one is also the sheer diversity of the social and cultural backgrounds of these leaders, and a whole variety of experiences they brought with them into the communist movement (even as the communist movement shaped their individual lives). This contradicts the general image of communists suppressing the dimension of individuality for the sake of the collective average. Rahul Sankrityayana remained a scholar of Sanskrit, Buddhism and Tibetan studies all his life, Qazi Nazrul Islam still holds a place in the annals of Indian literature, and Hasrat Mohani's romantic poetry continues to be sung by the most famous ghazal exponents and enjoyed by thousands of people. There are those, like Jyoti Basu and Saklatvala (unfortunately not mentioned in the book), who came from privileged families and were educated abroad, and Lakshmi Sehgal, who trained as a doctor, whose lives show us that oppression does not have to be experienced first-hand in order to adopt a politics far removed from the comfortable lives they were born into. There were people such as Major Jaipal Singh who became communist leaders despite their training and employment in the army, and others who came from small peasant families.

Women such as Ahilya Rangnekar, Godavari Parulekar and Vimal Ranadive (featured in this book), and Mallu Swarajam, Ila Bhattacharya, Kanak Mukherjee - and hundreds like them not mentioned here - were instrumental in breaking social barriers and building women's organisations and leading peasant and working class struggles. Harkishan Singh Surjeet was jailed as a student for hoisting the national flag in defiance of the British authorities and has lived the life of a revolutionary in Punjab.

MEMOIRS, biographies and biographical sketches are interesting for many reasons. They are real-life stories of individuals, and therefore one reads them with the respect due to something that is tangible, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. They tell of people like us - human beings who have been children, had their lives shaped by influences of near and dear ones and by larger social realities and have yet transcended those ordinary limits. They are remarkable in that they tell us, in the most direct form, of possibilities within everyday, individual lives, and how these ordinary lives link up with history to create human experiences that underline the relationship between the individual and the collective in `making history'.

One cannot say that the book under review is written with care; there is a certain ad hocism, and it is many years since the individual pieces were published. Had the book been conceived of independently, it would certainly have been different. It must be said that the number 25 is much too small to represent the category of communist freedom fighters; in addition a small book like this can scarcely do justice to even those 25 lives.

Its central message, derived rather than stated as a proposition, is that caring for the entire world and being an internationalist did not mean loving one's country any less; that international solidarities do not impinge on national loyalties; that it is not just the privileged but the working people who equally constitute the nation; and that all politics must be guided by these central propositions.

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