Indian communism during the Raj

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

History of the Communist Movement in India, Volume I: The Formative Years, 1920-1933; CPI(M) Publications in association with LeftWord Books, 2005; pages xv + 248, Rs.450 (hardcover), Rs.195 (paperback).

EVERY political party has to face up to the difficult task of writing its own history. It educates and at the same time presents an opportunity to the organisation to look back over an entire stretch of time and see in retrospect its highs and lows. The discourse on history - its own activities in relation to the historical context of those activities - is an important tool in its ideological evolution. Communist parties have the additional pressure to do so in view of the greater need for them to set the historical record straight. In that sense, a book on the communist movement in India at the initiative of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was long overdue, and is a much-needed addition to the study of modern Indian history.

The present volume tells the story of the early years of the communist movement in India. It is the first of a series planned by the history commission of the Central Committee of the CPI(M), which consisted of Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu, E.K. Nayanar, P. Ramachandran, Koratala Satyanarayana and Anil Biswas.

That academic historians in India have given a pass by to the role of the communist party even when they discuss and study specific popular movements is a truism that hardly needs repeating. There are tomes on the Congress, written with funding from the Indian government or research institutions, at the initiative of the Congress or by academics sympathetic to it. A considerable number of scholars are dedicated to researching and writing the history of the Congress. The two chronological sequences of the national movement and the history of the Indian National Congress, from the early days to the first decade of independent India, are treated not only as parallel but often identical. Their narration shows their highs and lows, in seamless continuity, while the communist movement is strangely commented upon and evaluated only in terms of selective episodes. The life of the communist movement and party is not seen in its totality as such.

In the last two decades, inspired no doubt by the political events following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, there has been a spurt of scholarship on the right wing in India. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Janata Party have found their professional historians, not sympathetic, but all the same dedicated to exercising their intellectual energies in understanding the rise and success of the Hindutva forces. In that sense, the communist movement has yet to find its historians. The ground that the book under review covers, namely the processes of communist action and organisation during the momentous years between 1920 and 1933, is the one that historians have not really considered important enough to deal with. This book is, therefore, an important source for learning about the history of the communist movement as well as the anti-colonial struggles in the country.

Often such works are criticised on grounds of not reflecting the state-of-the-art in scholarship and the application of sophisticated historical methods. However, they ought to be viewed with the realistic expectation of providing the missing groundwork in that field. Even if it does not emerge as a magisterial work of historiography, it still has plenty that one can learn which neither good textbooks on modern Indian or monographic studies bring to light.

THE book starts with a brief sketch of the major resistance movements from the mid-19th century onwards which provided the inspiration for the first anti-imperialist struggles, and of how the communists absorbed the finest qualities of these struggles. It describes the early responses to socialist ideas and traces how the ideas of Marxism started influencing the minds of Indians. We learn that Karl Marx was the first to characterise the 1857 rebellion as the "First War of Indian Independence", that the first known reference to Marx was made as early as 1881 by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and that the first full-fledged article on Marx to be written by an Indian was entitled "Karl Marx: A Modern Rishi" and was published in March 1912 in the monthly Modern Review. The author was Lala Hardayal, later one of the founders of the Ghadar Party in America. In the same year, `Swadeshabhimani' K. Ramakrishna Pillai, a radical-minded editor, wrote a biographical booklet on Marx in Malayalam. This was more than 27 years before the birth of the communist organisation in Kerala.

However, as in other colonies, the communist movement in India was a post-1917 revolution phenomenon. Within three years of the Bolshevik Revolution, the CPI was formed - in Tashkent in 1920 - at the initiative of Manabendra Nath Roy, Abani Mukherjee and some Khilafat activists such as Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Shafiq. The book gives due importance to these developments, which combined the socialist and national liberation movements into one revolutionary stream and had an electrifying effect in India as in other colonies. It shows also how the impact of the socialist revolution is matched by developments inside the country. The cadre of the future communist movement emerged in the context of the failure of extremist politics and the Khilafat movement and growing protests of the working class and the peasantry. They arose from the ranks of the best of the Khilafatists, the most radical of the bourgeois democrats and from the activists of the Ghadar Party. Communist groups were founded in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai), Madras (now Chennai) and Lahore as were trade unions under Left leadership. They met in Kanpur in 1925 to establish an all-India central committee.

The evolution of a strategy for the communist movement and its relationship with the freedom movement was a difficult process and involved lengthy discussions and debates over the years. Understandably, a great deal of space in the book is devoted to resolutions and debates within the communist groups and the relationship of the early communists with the Comintern (Communist International) and the Soviet Union. Rather than an expression of elitism, this is reflective of the great emphasis that communists put on theory and on deriving their strategy from an understanding of the co-relation of social and political forces at a given juncture. They also make a clear distinction between their strategy and goals based on an appraisal of these forces and their tactics which short-term developments may force them to respond to. The preoccupation with the character of the Indian bourgeoisie and the Congress was crucial for their activity and formation of political alliances. Hence these were debates that were keenly contested, far more than such questions are in other political organisations.

The Comintern and the Soviet Union came to occupy a major presence on the mental horizon of Indian communists for the simple reason that the October Revolution had established a link between the fortunes of socialism and national liberation struggles, and presented a real alternative to the oppressed. The chinks in the imperialist armour were now seen by communists the world over as located in countries which had strong Left movements within colonies, and this resulted in actual support to anti-imperialist movements by the Comintern and an abdication of the aggressive foreign policy concerns of old Russia by the Soviet Union. There was thus an objective basis for a natural and principled alliance between the socialist forces at the world level and national liberation movements, which the Indian communists, like the communists in other colonial countries, represented. The book underlines this relationship and it is refreshing to find the freedom movement referred to as a "national liberation" struggle, particularly in these times when Raj nostalgia has taken possession of the minds of people occupying the highest offices in the country.

Other major achievements of the book are inherent in the perspective adopted in the writing of the history of those years. The book deals with the formation of the communist movement and the formation of the all-India party in the context of the existential realities of the communist movement of those years. It shows how communists set great store by internationalism, a quality that contributed to the party's steadily increasing membership and support base during the early years and through to the first few years of post-Independence India. A deep sense of internationalism and emphasis on the unity of the oppressed worldwide was, in fact, the greatest strength of the communists, and one which distinguished them from other political forces fighting for freedom. Prejudice and motivated political and academic discourse alone are responsible for undermining this spirit from the political life of the nation and in presenting the communists as somehow led by forces outside the country. This volume largely sets the record straight on this score by showing that those inspired by internationalism were also those who made the greatest sacrifices for the nation. The details of the Kanpur, Peshawar and Meerut conspiracy cases during these early years of the communist movement reveal that the British considered them the greatest threat to their rule.

The book effectively puts forward the communist vision of national liberation, which involved class struggles, placing a premium on the interests and organisation of the working class and peasantry, and emphasis on agrarian revolution and elimination of caste oppression. In short, it describes what mainstream historiography has not bothered to state - the communists were the only political force that stood for revolution, for the overthrow of the entire system of oppression, and the transformation of the existing social and economic order. This was no small distinction.

Finally, it can be said that a history of the communist movement brought out by the CPI(M) is marked by both the plus and the minus points that such an enterprise (writing about one's own past) entails. The pluses are many; not least that it sets the record straight in the face of biases against the communist party in mainstream historiography. The minuses derive from the fact that looking at oneself with the advantage of hindsight can give a clearer picture, but not necessarily on all counts. The present also intervenes in blurring much that was clearer and obvious during the period written about. It has been the case here as well in some ways.

The political enterprise of the Hindu communal forces has been missed. While the communists were struggling to establish an all-India organisational presence in the mid-1920s, the 19th century revivalist forces had already gathered themselves in the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. The formation of these organisations represented the coming together of all parochial and sectarian religious groups, the transformation and joining together of Sanatan Dharma and the Arya Samaj, the political consolidation of these forces and the creation of a country-wide canvas for a rival, Hindutva version of the nation as exemplified by the aggressive shuddhi movement, and the break-out of large-scale, organised communal violence of the 1920s. This vision had its social base not merely among the landlords but also in the emerging nationalist bourgeoisie, which was an important component of the Congress. The communists had to contend with it. This reality loomed on the political canvas and in the activities of the communists, in a much bigger way than is accounted for in the book. The communist movement in its early years won the allegiance and had among its members a large number of Muslims and other minorities in proportion to their populations. It was a crucial feature, unmarked but obvious from the details pertaining to this period, no doubt owing to these competing alternative visions. The social dimensions of communist activities accounted for much of their influence and could have been given more attention. They accounted for the fact that their political influence was greater than their organisational base/networks.

The situation in the aftermath of 1928 is more complex than is accounted for by the conclusion that the Comintern's stand in these years isolated the CPI from the main current of the anti-colonial movement. The low period was as much owing to the arrest of almost the entire communist and trade union leadership as the fact that communists had to function underground for most of their lives in colonial India and had yet to form seriously links with peasant movements.

Years immediately preceding 1928 show communists leading working class strikes in Bombay and other places, and the years following the Civil Disobedience Movement show the same. A resurgence of the communist movement after 1932 was precisely because of disappointments with civil disobedience and Gandhian nationalism. The nationalist bourgeoisie had yet to show enough courage and the radical phase of the Congress was still in the future. If the communists had not come out of the Workers' and Peasants' Party to form the CPI, it is doubtful whether many of the radical pressures on the Congress would have worked. Perhaps the subsequent volumes will take care of some of these complexities in an otherwise valuable book.

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