A versatile communist

Print edition : August 10, 2012

Sajjad Zaheer became a communist in Britain, but back in India he joined the Congress in the anti-imperialist struggle against the British.

Sajjad Zaheer's contribution to the communist movement, to the world of literature and to the cause of secularism still awaits due acknowledgement. He was born in a prosperous family but chose a life of struggle. He began participating in the freedom movement in 1915 when he was 14. His father, Sir Syed Wazir Hasan, could not have approved of it. He became Chief Judge of Oudh. Sajjad Zaheer took a Master' s degree from Oxford University and became a barrister. In England, however, he not only joined the London Branch of the Indian National Congress but also established the first group of Indian communist students.

On his return to India, Sajjad Zaheer worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru as the general secretary of the Congress Committee of Allahabad. It is little known that even when he was president of the Congress, Nehru took an active interest in its Allahabad outfit.

Sajjad Zaheer. He founded the Progressive Writers Association and promoted the All India Kisan Sabha.-

Sajjad Zaheer was a born founder. He founded the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and promoted the All India Kisan Sabha. The Communist Party of India was underground, and communist literature was banned in India though not in Britain. Sajjad Zaheer read it avidly while in England and made contact with the top leaders of the CPI. He also found time to edit the magazine Chingari (Spark). When the ban on the CPI was lifted, he edited the party journals Qaumi Jang (People' s War) and Naya Zamana (New Era).

In 1948, the CPI sent him to Pakistan to organise the party there. He was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan. Though he was underground for three years he did a lot to organise workers and students. In 1951 he was arrested and put on trial in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. In prison he wrote Zikr-e-Hafiz and Roshnai (The Light). On his release from jail in 1955, he returned to India and resumed work as the general secretary of the PWA. He died in 1973.

Harry Pollitt, who was general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Zaheer says sometimes Pollitt invited him to his flat for a long talk.-

Sajjad Zaheer translated Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tagore and Khalil Gibran. There are many accounts of communists' role in the Congress Socialist Party. None better than his. Also, it is fascinating to read how he became a communist in Britain.

This writer reviewed in this journal Hasan Zaheer' s The Times and Trial of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case (1998) and The Light (2006), which is an authoritative account of the Progressive Writers' Movement.

It fell to H.D. Sharma, as in the case of other communist leaders, to interview Sajjad Zaheer for the Oral History Programme of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi, to which this writer is indebted for the transcript. It ends on page 100. The entire phase of the Calcutta Congress (1948), P.C. Joshi' s ouster from office as general secretary, and the Ranadive Line deserve closer study. Worst of all, Sharma could and ought to have acquired from him a full account of his days in Pakistan, including his trial. He did not. His pathetic performance leaves us with little; but the little is very worthwhile on the days in Britain and on the Congress Socialist Party, particularly with a bit on the PWA. Zaheer: I had not read any communist literature before I went to England. It was only in England that it was possible to do so.

Sharma: How were you initiated to Marxism?

Zaheer: I cannot pinpoint any specific tme or date, but this was about the time I met those people at the Congress of the League Against Imperialism. It was a most important influence on me. Then, of course, my association with comrade Shapurji Saklatvala and other British communists, specially British intellectuals, was there. I knew Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Sometimes he invited me to his flat and we had a long talk. That is about all. Then, the British Communist Party helped us to organise a study circle in our group and in this group the person who really taught me Marxism as a teacher was Ralph Fox, the famous writer, who was later killed in the Spanish Civil War, and David Guest, another very brilliant Marxist scholar from Cambridge, son of Dr Haden Guest, Labour MP. This Guest (the son) was a Marxist. He was a philosopher, historian and got a first class first throughout; a very brilliant and very fine man. Actually, it was he who introduced me to Marx' s Capital. Another person who was in touch with the Indian communist group there was Ben Bradley. He was a British worker and was in India. He was also involved in the Meerut Conspiracy Case. After his release he came to England, and used to look after our group there. But this was in the late thirties.

Sharma: Do you remember some of the books which you read at the time of Marxism?

Zaheer: First of all, of course, The Communist Manifesto. Then, I think one of the books that I liked most and I still like is Engels' Socialism, Utopian or Scientific. But I think that the most practical influences in the organisation of the communist movement and its basic tenets were through Lenin' s books, particularly his What Is To Be Done, which sort of lays down the essentials in regard to the organisation of a communist party and a communist movement, the need of a paper, the need of a group, the need of a centralised democratic leadership, discipline, etc. Then apart from What Is To Be Done, the two other books which I consider to be among the best which Lenin ever wrote were his Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (not that we could protect ourselves from this disorder with which our party suffered in India quite a lot and still does) and State and Revolution.

Then, of course, Marx' s historical writings. I must say I am not a good economist, but I have made a fairly good study of historical materialism and Marx' s historical writings. Then the more recent books. One of the books that influenced us, this was after Hitler came to power in the early thirties, was John Strachey' s book on socialism, The Struggle for Power, and his another book. John Strachey was also a very fine speaker, and in the great United Front movement in England, which developed after Hitler came to power, he was one of its luminaries, one of its leading lights. Later on, of course, after the [Second World] War, I think, he left political life and became a very respectable leader of the Labour Party. But John Strachey was certainly a very brilliant man.

Zaheer (right) with a friend.-

Sharma: Besides the original writings of Marx and Lenin, do you remember having read some books by other authors?

Zaheer: Well, our main primer, the main book was Rajani Palme Dutt' s India Today. That was a very small book to begin with, but that gave us an understanding of the Indian political, social and economic situation. We accepted that as our basic book. I must also tell you that Dutt was also one of the most important influences on me personally. I used to know him in England, used to meet him occasionally. He is a very scholarly type of a man, rather cold in his manners compared to Indians. We are warm-hearted people, like to sit down, chat and talk. Saklatvala was like any other Indian, but Dutt in spite of his Indian name...is not only half-Indian, he is full European and his manners and behaviour are like that of an Englishman, which are a little chilling.

Sharma: Did you read some books about the Russian Revolution?

Zaheer: Yes. Being in England, one of the greatest advantage was the free availability of literature of all kind that one wanted to read. There was a bookshop at 16 King Street (in a room downstairs), which is the headquarters of the Communist Party. We used to visit [the bookshop] almost every week to get the Communist International' s weekly, Inprecor, International Press Correspondence, and the Daily Worker. Sometimes I used to buy La Humanite also, the French [Communist] Party' s paper, and some other journals. Soviet Literature magazine was also one of my favourites. It still is. During this time there was a great ferment among writers, specially after Hitler came to power, just before the Second World War. I think this was the period when I really, intellectually and politically, got most involved in all these things. The great French writer Romain Rolland, Maxim Gorky, Henri Barbusse and Thomas Mann were the great figures of European literature at that time. The famous French poet Louis Aragon was still young, but I had the good fortune of meeting him in Paris. After finishing my studies at Oxford (I took B.A. (Honours) degree) I came to India for a year and went back again to finish my Law studies. I was there again from 1932 to 1935. During this time, while living in London, studying Law, I used to go to Paris quite often because I had very good friends there. Dr Shankatullah Ansari, the Governor of Orissa, and some other Bengali friends were studying in Paris, and most of my holidays I used to spend in France. There, of course, Left radical and communist movement was far stronger and more effective. This was the period of the first successful United Front movement.

I must record this, that at Oxford, during this period, the first communists in the whole university were Indians - one or two others and myself. There used to be three political clubs among Oxford University students - the Conservative Club, the Liberal Club and the Labour Club. They belonged loosely to these three ideologies. In the Labour Club there used to be a few Marxists also, but none was a communist as such. The communist movement among British students was very weak. It has always been weak. It is not so now I believe, but in my days there were no British communist students. But when the October Club was formed, there was a new leftist swing, Marxist or communist swing, among the West European intelligentsia after Hitler' s advent to power, in order to stop Fascism and the Second World War, which was already looming large. At that time there was a ferment among British students and the first organisers [of the October Club], those who decided to form a more radical club than the Labour Club, were the British students whom I knew, who were junior to me, and were friends of mine. We consulted among ourselves, and it was decided by these British friends to form this October Club. Among its leaders, I remember two names very well; one American student, Myer, who later on became a very eminent economist, I believe. I have lost touch with him. I don' t know what happened to him in the United States. Another was John Freeman, not the British High Commissioner, who was here, but of the same name. He was also junior to me, and there were some others. But all the students who joined the October Club were not communist, but they were not anti-communist.

George Bernard Shaw. Once the October Club invited Shaw. Shaws speech was mainly about his impressions of the Soviet Union, which he had visited a few months earlier. When the president invited questions, Zaheer asked Shaw: Mr Shaw, you have told us about what you saw in the Soviet Union and how you were impressed by the communist society there. If this is your belief, why dont you work for a communist revolution in England and why dont you join the Communist Party of Great Britain? Shaw replied: Young man, you ask me why I dont join the Communist Party of Great Britain? I want the Communist Party of Great Britain to join me.-

One of the meetings, which I will never forget, was the one when the October Club people invited George Bernard Shaw, to come and address it. He had consistently refused [to come to Oxford]. He had never been to Oxford. He said, " This place is too degenerated, too aristocratic and I don' t want to go there." But when the October Club was formed, he had just been to the Soviet Union and came back full of praise for her. He came to Oxford and agreed to address the October Club. There was a small group of pro-fascist students among British students and they said they would not allow Shaw to speak. So we decided to defend that meeting and among the chief defenders of the meeting was my dear friend, B.P.L. Bedi, who was at that time physically the strongest man at Oxford. He still is, I am glad to say, very hefty and powerful person...

After Shaw had finished, the audience was asked if any one wanted to ask questions of Shaw. Shaw' s speech was mainly about his experiences and impressions of the Soviet Union, which he had visited a few months earlier. Since he had come back, he had been writing about them and actually there was a controversy between him and H.G. Wells in regard to the Soviet Union. The social and political system of the Soviet Union had impressed Shaw very much. Anyhow, when the president invited questions, we all were naturally overawed by the greatness of Bernard Shaw, but I took courage in both hands and stood up and asked two questions. You can see from the nature of my questions themselves how youthful and, perhaps, impertinent I was. I asked him, " Mr Shaw, you have told us about what you saw in the Soviet Union and how you were impressed by the communist society there. If this is your belief, why don' t you work for a communist revolution in England and why don' t you join the Communist Party of Great Britain?" Bernard Shaw stood up, looked at me quizzically. I was far behind in the hall. He said, " Young man, you ask me, why I don' t join the Communist Party of Great Britain? I want the Communist Party of Great Britain to join me." This was a typical Shavian answer. Everyone in England knew that the Communist Party of Great Britain was not influential and Bernard Shaw, as a great intellectual and as a great writer, was perhaps far more, at least he considered himself far more important than the Communist Party of Great Britain.

...I think Shapurji Saklatvala was one of those fine Indians to whom we owe a very great deal. He was, of course, a Marxist, a communist, one of the earliest in Great Britain, and the only [Communist] member to be elected in one particular election to Parliament. He was a great orator and a great speaker.

...In private conversations which we, left-wing Indian students, used to have with him, he was very critical of the policies of the Indian National Congress and Gandhiji. That was the policy of the communists at that time, but I never heard Saklatvala do this publicly in any meeting in England. He had the wisdom and the intelligence to see that the national movement was, by and large, led by Gandhiji and the Indian National Congress, and that the radicals, the revolutionaries, the communists also should, therefore, work through this movement, radicalise it if they liked. But it should be a united front against imperialism. This line, later on, was accepted by the Communist International at its seventh Congress, and after the experience of Hitler' s fascism.

Rajani Palme Dutt, one of the most important influences on Zaheer personally. His book India Today, Zaheer says, gave us an understanding of the Indian political, social and economic situation. We accepted that as our basic book.-

Sharma: Do you remember what was his criticism of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress when he discussed things with you in private?

Zaheer: He thought that it was bourgeois leadership. He would criticise as all leftists did in those days, that Gandhiji put a stop to the non-cooperation movement after the Chauri Chaura event; that the movement of national independence could have been developed, but Gandhiji got frightened because of the peasant upsurge. And since Gandhiji had a soft corner for the landlords, the capitalists of Ahmedabad and Bombay and other Indian capitalists, so the movement of Indian liberation led by Gandhiji could not become a real movement of the masses in which the peasants would be involved so as to take them forward to revolutionary actions. I think this was his main and basic criticism. But there was always a difference in the way Saklatvala put these things and certain other communists did. Some of us took very extreme leftist positions which we later on found to be quite incorrect and gave them up when the line of the united national front was developed after 1936....

In a way we could say that Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose also, were, more or less, in the same category. They also felt and wrote about it. They criticised the shortcomings of our previous movements, and they were also seeking, in a way, a new way to independence. The socialist band inside the Congress, apart from the communists, men like Jayaprakash Narayan, Minoo Masani, Rammanohar Lohia and others were also in the same category of people who were thinking of new ways and means of achieving our independence. I think, in spite of very big differences in the outlook of these various people that I have named, namely, Nehru, Subhas, Jayaprakash and ourselves - the communists - there was one common factor: we all came to the conclusion that unless the socialist objective was put forward as the goal of Indian independence, that is to say, the abolition of capitalism and feudalism, and the building of a new democratic society based on social justice, and the theories of socialism, we could not involve the masses of our country in our national movement.

Jayaprakash Narayan (left) with socialist leader Yusuf Meherally at his residence. A 1946 Photograph.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sharma: What made you change your position later on?

Zaheer: To begin with, in the early thirties, the few communist groups that I knew of in London or elsewhere were taking an extreme leftist and unrealistic position, in the sense that we denounced the entire leadership of the Congress as well as the leftist radical elements in the Congress as counter-revolutionary. We thought they would not join a revolutionary struggle for the emancipation of the country and would always work for a compromise with British Imperialism. This, I think, was a wrong estimate of national situation and also of class forces in our country. That is why, I think, it was a wrong assessment. Later in 1935 and 1936, or even earlier, I think, in 1933-34, this position was corrected; that is to say, we conceived that a national united front could be built within the framework of the Indian National Congress.

...When this policy was put into practice by a very small group of communists in our country at that time, we saw its results and how rapidly we gained in our influence, both inside and outside the Congress, and among workers and peasants. We became quite a strong force inside the Congress.

...Almost immediately, on my coming back from England, I joined the Indian National Congress, in fact, three parties at the same time; it was possible in those days. I got in touch with the underground communist workers in Uttar Pradesh, comrade P.C. Joshi and [R.D.] Bhardwaj. I also almost about the same time joined the Congress Socialist Party. But my main political activity was in the City Congress at Allahabad. I saw Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru; he was not actually in Allahabad when I came back from England. At that time, I think, his wife was ill in Germany. She died there. Panditji was extremely affectionate [to me]. He, of course, knew that I was a communist, but communists were an illegal group at that time, not very strong at all in U.P. At any rate, I started working, more or less, under Panditji' s, what shall I say, patronage or his encouragement in the Congress - both in the City Congress Committee and in the All-India Congress Committee office.... After a few months of my joining the Congress, I was elected secretary of the City Congress Committee of Allahabad. There were three secretaries at that time. Mrs Purnima Banerjee, the younger sister of Mrs Aruna Asaf Ali, was also my colleague; she was one of the secretaries, and another Congressman of Allahabad, Pandit Radhey Shyam Pathak, was also a secretary. We three were secretaries of the City Congress Committee of Allahabad. In the District Congress Committee, the secretaries were the late Lal Bahadur Shastri and Saligram Jaiswal. I think, Keshev Dev Malaviya and Mohan Lal Gautam were also there intermittently. This was the group. Although Panditji was the president of the Indian National Congress at that time, he was, somehow or other, very keen to be also there (Allahabad City and Allahabad District Congress Committee). I liked his this quality of being an active worker of Allahabad City and Allahabad District Congress Committees. He also was the president of the Allahabad City Congress Committee at that time. So I was the secretary of the Congress Committee of which Panditji was the president. In fact, it was through his intervention, I should say, that, a young man, who was practically unknown in Allahabad Congress circles, was made secretary of the Congress Committee.

Rammanohar Lohia. The socialist band inside the Congress, apart from the communists, Jayaprakash Narayan, Minoo Masani, Rammanohar Lohia and others, were also in the same category of people who were thinking of new ways and means of achieving our independence, Zaheer said.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

...I was not the only communist who joined the Congress at that time. With me were Dr Mohammed Ashraf, Dr Z.A. Ahmed, Mahmuduzzafar Khan and some other people. All these people had taken their degrees in England and had come back. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was very proud of our group and he introduced us to Gandhiji and to Sardar Patel saying, " People say that Muslims are not coming in the Congress. Here is this brilliant group of young Muslims which went to England and took degrees there and had come back and joined the Congress." Anyhow, I was saying that this was the time when Panditji started his Mass Contact Movement and from the communist side, we too, were trying to develop the Congress as a sort of united national front of all the anti-imperialist elements in this country. We wanted that more and more workers and peasants should join the Congress and that it should go more to the left rather than be dominated by the middle or the more rightist elements. So, we particularly campaigned, for example, for mass membership of the Congress.

Shapurji Saklatvala. He was one of the earliest communists in Great Britain to be elected to Parliament. He was a great orator and a great speaker.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sharma: Now Dr Ashraf, Dr Ahmed and you were Marxist and Dr Lohia was, I think, not a Marxist. How were your relations with him?

Zaheer: Dr Lohia, of course, called himself a Marxist, but we thought he was not a good Marxist. Our relations with Dr Lohia were extremely good and friendly. On a personal level, they were very very good indeed. We used to be together most of the time in our Congress work and other work. On the political level, of course, we had differences. Both Dr Lohia and myself were members of the Executive Committee of the Congress Socialist Party and there also, during the time, a kind of duel, a debate ensued between the communist members, who were about five or six - E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Soli Batliwala, Dinkar Mehta, myself - on the one hand (and the socialist members) on the other - J.P. Narendra Deva in the centre and Lohia also perhaps in the centre and then on the right [M.R.] Masani, [Achyut] Patwardhan....

Minoo Masani. "There were different trends inside the Congress Socialist Party. The most powerful unit of the Congress Socialist Party was the Malabar unit and the Andhra unit; the former was led by [E.M.S.] Namboodiripad and the latter was led by P. Sundarayya. Jayaprakash Narayan had a very great admiration for both these units, and whenever Masani attacked these units, he defended them."-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sharma: You were a member of two left-wing parties, that is, the Congress Socialist Party and the Communist Party. The Congress Socialist Party called itself a Marxist party. But Communist Party also claimed to be a Marxist party. I think, there was not much in common between the two parties. Then, what made you join both the organisations?

Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose in discussion at an All India Congress Committee meeting in Bombay. Some of us took very extreme leftist positions which we later on found to be quite incorrect and gave them up when the line of the united national front was developed after 1936. In a way we could say that Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose also were, more or less, in the same category.... They criticised the shortcomings of our previous movements, and they were also seeking, in a way, a new way to independence.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Zaheer: I do not agree with you that there was not much in common; there was a great deal in common, at least in regard to the immediate programme of work, and, as you know, there were prolonged negotiations between the leaders of the two parties. Negotiations went on between P.C. Joshi and J.P. Narayan and a common programme was actually drawn up to which both agreed. I think, but for the sort of very dogged opposition of the right inside the Congress Socialist Party, there would have been no difficulty. As far as the Communist Party was concerned, we had almost agreed to join the two parties. So it is not correct to say that there was not much in common between us. The main thing at that time was how to organise the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle against the British for Indian independence. Both the Communist Party and the Congress Socialist Party agreed that the economic and social demands of peasants and workers must be made a part and parcel of the national struggle; only then we could make our movement really a mass revolutionary movement. On this, there was an agreement. I think, disagreement came more in the form of an organisation and in the form of struggle. Actually, as far as the form of the struggle was concerned, any discussion on that was more theoretical than practical; the fact that this unity could not be brought about, which I think, was definitely possible, was because of a hard core of anti-communists, a kind of McCarthyite anti-communists inside the Congress Socialist Party. This is now quite apparent from the role that Masani and Asoka Mehta are playing in Indian politics today.

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