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A vital chapter from the past

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001 T+T-

Remembering Dr. Gangadhar Adhikari: Selections from Writings, Part II; edited by Amar Farooqui; People's Publishing House, New Delhi, 2000; pages 399, Rs.200/$20 (paperback).

IT is indeed a creditable effort of the Joshi-Adhikari Institute, New Delhi, to have published documents relating to the history of the Indian Communist movement. The collection under review includes some of the writings of Gangadhar Adhikari, a well-known Marxist theoretician. Starting from 1929, it covers the period up to the 1960s. Broadly, the themes include the Indian national movement, the Communist movement and the people's struggles, and the Second World War. As Amar Farooqui, the editor, points out, this volume assembles some of the crucial pieces written by Adhikari during 1942-48. In a context where the "dominant historiography of Indian nationalism" with its preoccupation with the "triangular conflict between the Congress, the League and the British" has sought to push "the role of the Communist party" to the background, this work brings to light a vital chapter associated with the Communist movement.

The first essay, "The Trade Disputes Bill" (Spark, February 29, 1929), echoes the context - namely, the "Great Depression" - in which an offensive was launched against the working people by capitalist and imperialist governments in different parts of the world. Adhikari critiques the way different political streams and capitalists in India responded to it. Whereas the basic effort of the colonial government was to contain strike actions, the Swarajists, given their link with the landed sections and the capitalists, were committed to the principle of the Bill and saw it as "an essentially democratic measure".

The next piece, "I see Mansa" is a report (National Front, April 10, 1938) on Adhikari's visit to the princely state of Mansa (in present-day Gujarat) along with a delegation of journalists. The visit was in the context of the Mansa Prajamandal movement's struggle against the oppressive durbar, which had increased the revenue demands arbitrarily with each revenue settlement in 10 years. This, coupled with falling prices, caused great hardship to the peasants. Since the durbar had turned a deaf ear to the peasants' petition for a reduction of rent, the Prajamandal rose in revolt. Adhikari had noticed the presence of a large number of peasant women at the Prajamandal meetings and the people's anxiety owing to the repressive measures adopted by the durbar, which included the looting of wheat from the peasants and the roughing up of the womenfolk. The interview with the dewan (in the course of which he tried to convince the delegation that the peasants never petitioned the durbar), the description of the state jail and the details of a Prajamandal meeting offer vital clues to the reader to understanding the dynamics of change and protest. Adhikari was a bit disappointed with the Prajamandal leadership for not having given space to the peasants to voice their anger. Nevertheless, his conclusion - "The bus moved away. It had grown darker. But we saw more light now" (page 11) - perhaps sums up the 'spark' that had started the "prairie fire" in the princely states of India.

The next essay, "Pakistan and National Unity" (1942), is a well-known one. As pointed out by the editor, "the thesis is a complex one and provides ...important insights". In fact, although by and large misunderstood, the essay reflects a serious attempt to work out strategy in a volatile context. It is clear that Adhikari visualised the "Muslim question" from a perspective of sharing power on an equal footing within the framework of an independent India. It is normally forgotten that this theory aimed to take the steam out of pan-Islamism and the Hindu imagery associated with the national movement - the imagery with which a section of the Congress leadership was associated. Its aim was to forge an anti-imperialist unity from below by fostering unity between the Congress and the Muslim League.

Simultaneously, Adhikari touches upon the aspirations of different nationalities (such as Andhra, Bengali, Bihari, Kannada, Oriya and Sindhi) and the importance of recognising India's muti-national reality.

Although one may agree that this report is open to misinterpretation, some parts of it need to be highlighted. For instance, there is a sharp critique of the notion of Akhand Bharat which, Adhikari says, "fans the flames of hatred between the Hindus and Muslims and really supports national inequality and oppression" (page 39). In fact, Adhikari dismisses the idea of some nationalists that India existed as a nation from time immemorial (or, from the time of Asoka and Akbar) and that India was one from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and the idea of 'one nation, one people, one language'. This illustrates the meeting point - often missed by professional historians - between the positions of right-wing communalists and the Congress nationalists. Moreover, his contention regarding the Indian capitalist class itself getting split along religious lines - Muslim and Hindu - has been borne out by the works of serious economic historians. Perhaps, most important, the aims and perspectives outlined by Adhikari in no way match what actually happened in 1947.

If this essay is read along with the next two pieces - ''Critique of Reginald Coupland's Constitutional Problem in India'' (People's War, November 1944) and ''The National Question in Punjab'' (published in People's Age on December 14, 1945, during the campaign for the 1946 election) one can get a full picture of Adhikari's perspective. The former exposes the dangers involved in the imperialist argument, which was given an academic facade by a Professor of 'Colonial History' at Oxford University. In this essay, Adhikari outlines the importance of Congress-League unity. In the absence of such unity, he says, the retreating colonial power would divide the nation with the idea of retaining some control over it. He also mentions another haunting reality of those years - the attempt to create a 'Princistan', that is, a princely India. The writing on Punjab dwells at length on the question and importance of self-determination of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab and of uniting the people.

The essay ''Royal Indian Navy Strike'' (People's Age, March 10, 1946) delineates the way the Congress and the League responded to the struggle for justice and equality. The Congress refused to condemn the violence of the imperialist military. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was clear that the rebels should not have taken up arms. He also condemned the 'hartal' called to protest against the brutality inflicted on the rebels. The League leadership stuck to its constitutionalism, with Mohammed Ali Jinnah declaring that armed rebellion was not acceptable. Adhikari's prophetic observation that "future historians of free India will call it the glorious struggle of the Indian Navy" (page 94) is indeed very striking.

The next piece, ''Report on Empire Communist Parties'' Conference (1947)' (Communist, April 1947), is a short note. The Conference was attended by Adhikari. He refers to Rajni Palme Dutt's speech, which outlined the new situation after the defeat of fascism, the emergence of the socialist world and the people's democracies, and the Anglo-U.S. efforts to dominate the world. Adhikari emphasises the historic significance of this conclave, which brought together Communist parties from different parts of the 'old empire' and opened up possibilities for cooperation among the working class movements of those countries.

Two of the essays - "The Communist Movement in India up to 1947 - A Historical Reappraisal" (a document prepared in 1964) and "Forty Years of the CPI" (New Age, February 6, 1966) - give a meticulously organised account of the formation and growth of the Communist movement in India.

Adhikari makes a clear reference to the mistakes made by the movement in the 1942 period. At the same time, new research on the subject clearly establishes that beyond what happened at the leadership level, this phase saw militant working class and peasant struggles in different parts of the country. More significantly, the colonial administration continued its policy of hostility towards Communists. However, one can argue that the mistakes resulted in a sudden decline of the movements of the rural poor, whom Communists had organised effectively in the preceding period. Going along with the 'Quit India' resolution would have been a great advantage for the mass movements and would have kept Communists in mainstream politics.

The major mass movements associated with the Royal Indian Navy's struggles, the working class struggles and the anti-colonial and anti-landlord movements of the Kisan Sabha are also discussed. Along with these struggles, the Communist movement contributed to the re-organisation of several States on linguistic basis and the liberation of parts of India from Portuguese colonial rule. These contributions made the Communists popular. Thus, in the first general elections (1952) the Communist Party of India secured six million votes. With 25 seats, it was the second largest group in the Lok Sabha.

Among the other essays are those dealing with China and the Second World War. There is also an obituary written for D.D. Kosambi, the legendary mathematician and archaeologist/historian. The obituary states that Kosambi, who worked at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, was forced into retirement by the Tatas who were unhappy with his participation in the peace movement (page 266).

This collection is a must for anyone interested in India's freedom struggle, particularly the role of the Communist movement. One would like to point out that certain portions are missing in the editorial note and there are some repetitions. Surely one can expect such valuable collections to be produced better.