Sajjad Zaheer was among those who formed the Progressive Writers Association in Lucknow in 1936.
SAJJAD ZAHEER, a much-underestimated figure in the communist movement and in the world of literature, spoke at length to H.D. Sharma, as part of the Oral History Project of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi. The first part of the article, A versatile communist, was published in the August 10 issue of Frontline. This part deals with, among other things, the Congress Socialist Party and the communists and the Progressive Writers Association.
Zaheer: There were different trends inside the Congress Socialist Party. The most powerful unit of the Congress Socialist Party [C.S.P] 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 [M.R.] Masani attacked these units, he defended them. Now these people did not become communists and then join the C.S.P., as in my case, for example. They were Congressmen, who became Congress Socialists and then later on became communists. So it would be correct to say that in the Congress Socialist Party, there were various socialist trends and I dont agree with the view that the whole party or its leadership, let us say, was bourgeois.
Sharma: You were a signatory, along with Dinkar Mehta and Soli Batliwala, to the draft thesis which was presented to the Congress Socialist Party Conference in 1938 at Lahore. Who had drafted this thesis and what was the purpose of presenting this as an alternative thesis?
Zaheer: It was drafted by Soli Batliwala and myself with the approval of Namboodiripad and Dinkar Mehta, and we had, of course, also shown it to our communist colleagues, like Bhardwaj, who was also present in Lahore at that time. This was, I think, to express the views of the communist leadership inside the Congress Socialist Party. Actually, I had presented this thesis earlier at the U.P. provincial conference of the party at Lucknow, of which I was secretary. It was furiously attacked by Acharya Narendra Deva as a sort of an attempt of the communists to take over the party. But that is a long story.
Sharma: Can you tell us something about the controversy that the communists wanted to capture the C.S.P. at Lahore? What was its history and what was the intention of the communists in this regard?
Zaheer: I would say that the communists wanted to capture the Congress Socialist Party at Lahore is not correct. Of course, inside the Congress Socialist Party, there were different views in regard to the nature of the Congress Socialist Party: how we were going to develop it in regard to its programme and tactics. This was constantly under discussion although we had a commonly accepted programme, which had been earlier accepted by it and we had also accepted, I mean, those of us who were communists inside the Congress Socialist Party. The idea of the communists inside the Congress Socialist Party at that time was not to capture or disrupt or to drive out of the party such people who were not of the same views as they were. As a matter of fact [we wanted] to develop the Congress Socialist Party as a broad socialist united party in which communists as well as those who were not communists should be united. In fact, shortly after the Lahore Conference, a definite proposal was made by [P. C. Joshi of] the Communist Party of India to Jayaprakash Narayan, general secretary of the Congress Socialist Party, to have discussions between the two parties on the possibility of a merger of the two parties. But that is another story. There was opposition to it, I may tell you, both from inside the Communist Party as well as from the Congress Socialist Party. So it was not as if the communists were united on this question.
At that time I was not a member of the Congress Socialist Party, and Yusuf Meherally asked me to join it. I had already joined the Congress at Allahabad. I told Yusuf Meherally, Look, Yusuf, I do not want you to be under any misconception. I am a communist and I dont know whether you would allow communists to join your party. He patted me on the back, and said, Look, I know all about you; many people have told me. We have all to be together. I dont think there is any harm in your joining the party. In fact, he was the one who enrolled me as a member of the Congress Socialist Party. He was very friendly, emotional, and an extremely good man; I always liked him even when we had serious differences.
So the idea that it was a plot of the communists to infiltrate, the very favourite word used by our opponents, the Congress Socialist organisation and to capture it from inside is altogether wrong. Similarly, if you would ask Jayaprakash Narayan and if he remembers this, he would tell you that it was he who had requested E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Sundarayya when they were not members of the Congress Socialist Party [to join the party]. I dont think they had become, later on, members of the illegal Communist Party. I dont know exactly when they became [the members of the CPI]. It was the Congress Socialist leaders who asked us to join the Congress Socialist Party. When I say us I mean some of the communists who later on were elected to leading positions in the Congress Socialist Party. So, this thing has to be borne in mind.Lahore Conference
Secondly, on the eve of the Lahore Conference of the Congress Socialist Party, some of us the names that I have mentioned were provincial leaders. I was secretary of the U.P. Congress Socialist Party. Obviously, you could not be secretary of the Congress Socialist Party in U.P. without the consent, cooperation and patronage of Acharya Narendra Deva, who was senior to me and was extremely considerate to me. He had asked me to become secretary [of the party]. Similarly, Sundarayya became secretary [of the party] in Andhra, E.M.S. Namboodiripad in Malabar, as it was called in those days, and, probably, Dinkar Mehta in Gujarat.
The organisational state of the Congress Socialist Party was so loose that it was not a properly organised party. We had no proper lists of our members; our meetings were not properly held. Our central office [was not properly organised]. Although, I must say, Masani as [general] secretary [of the party] was very efficient. Jayaprakash Narayan, of course, great man that he is, is well known for his inefficiency as an office worker; I dont mean to denigrate him. He has, of course, many great qualities. In those days, he was a sort of uniting force behind the socialist movement in our country. So those of us who were working in the Congress Socialist Party in responsible positions, as secretaries of various State units or provincial units, made serious efforts to enrol new members of the party, to hold socialist study circles, forums to bring together ideologically the new Left socialist element that was developing inside the Indian National Congress.
Now there is a Persian saying: Ai Roshnu-Tuba to Burman Bala Shudi Perhaps it is an illumination of my mind which became a disaster for me. That is to say, it was because we worked hard and enrolled new members, organised socialist forums and, of course, we had a policy, which was not opposed to the socialists, [that we became suspects in the eyes of the socialists]. In our view [this] should [have been] the policy which all socialists and communists in India should [have followed]. We were working for [the acceptance of] this policy by the Congress Socialist Party in a democratic way. Now, at Lahore, the actual position was that there were elements inside the Congress Socialist Party whom I would blame for this splitting up activity, for the intrigue, for all the things which they attribute to us. Really, they were the guilty people, that is to say, Masani and with him another small group, probably Asoka Mehta and one or two others, who had all the time communist phobia of the McCarthy type. [Their attitude] was quite different from the attitude of, let us say, Jayaprakash Narayan or Acharya Narendra Deva, who were, I think, genuinely working for a united socialist movement as we were.
Now these people started this scare at Lahore, that member from U.P., member from Andhra, member from Malabar, member from Gujarat and from many other places were all communist members, and that these people had manoeuvred this and they were in a majority. So if a vote was taken in Lahore, they were going to have a majority of communists in the national executive of the Congress Socialist Party. This was the scare.
The whole thing was totally manufactured because there was no question of majority. Five or four of us, that is, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Dinkar Mehta, Batliwala and I, were inside the Congress Socialist Party. What we were working for was a true reflection of the newly organised Congress Socialist Party, in which we had taken a leading part. Now, these people, I mean, Masani and Asoka Mehta and one or two others, created this scare that we were going to capture the party. And then what happened in the end, we had talks with Acharyaji, with Jayaprakash Narayan and others. There were free and open discussions in our conference. And when we realised that these people were so very scared, we did not insist on this and we said, All right, we do not want a split on this issue, let Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharyaji present a list. In the end that list was accepted, I think, unanimously, and we withdrew our list. This, of course, was considered a big victory by the Masani group inside the leadership. But we made this conscious retreat, if you like, in order to see that the communist phobia did not take hold of the entire leadership of the party.
Sharma: Would it be correct to say that the communist members of the Congress Socialist Party worked as a well-knit group apart from the other members, maybe because of their like-mindedness or common outlook?
Zaheer: Yes, we did occasionally, before the meetings of the national executive or during it. We used to sometimes meet informally, just as, I dare say, Masani, Asoka and Achyut Patwardhan used to meet. It was a fantastic experience for me. I had come from England and had all the goodwill and feeling of friendship for my socialist comrades and friends whom I had joined. Almost since my first meeting of the national executive, I found that there was a small group, led by Minoo Masani, which did not seem to take interest in any damn thing, except anti-communism, that is to say, in such and such a place, in such and such a group, the communists were intriguing, and how to throw out these communists from the party. They would not take interest in the building up of the party, building of the mass movement, in Kisan Sabhas, in trade unions. They would sit there sleepily and as soon as some such issue was brought up, such as the recognition of membership made in Andhra, in Kerala or in U.P., then Masani would start opposing it by saying, All this is bogus membership. All this is not membership at all, let Jayaprakash Narayan go and find out. And then Asoka Mehta, who would generally be half asleep on all the other issues, would wake up and with fire and thunder speak, supporting Masani. So I was so unhappy and disgusted with this show that I still, after 30 or 40 years, feel the anguish that I used to feel in those days, because there were so many other important things which we had to discuss the problems in the Congress, the national movement as a whole, the international situation. This was what hurt me very much. So, to come back directly to your question, we did certainly occasionally consult together. But we also consulted with Jayaprakash, Narendra Deva and even with Masani. It was not a sort of properly organised group, as it were, that used to meet before or after the meetings. We would meet in the national executive, and sometimes we would sit in a corner and discuss.
When we went out of the Congress Socialist Party we were all in prison a rump met at Lucknow and decided to expel us from the party illegally, unconstitutionally, because the national executive of the Congress Socialist Party could not, according to the constitution of the party, expel its own members; they could only be expelled by the party conference.
Sharma: Did you organise some office of the provincial Congress Socialist Party?
Zaheer: No, I am afraid not. It was partly in the pocket of Acharya Narendra Deva and partly in my pocket.
Sharma: How did you manage the finances for your tours? Were you managing on your own?
Zaheer: Actually, in those days, I was invited to various districts for some conference, students conference, kisan conference, or even a Congress political rally. So our expenses were paid by the people who invited us. This was the general practice and the arrangements were not very luxurious. We used to travel in third class and stay with our friends wherever we went. I had no money of my own. I used to get a meagre allowance from my father, and, of course, this was also spent in this work. But there was no fund of the Congress Socialist Party as such at that time.
Sharma: Do you think that your party made any impact on Congress policies?
Zaheer: That is very difficult to gauge. I do think that it did. For example, the big issue in those days was office acceptance. In this, I think, one does not know because Pandit Jawaharlal himself was among those who were against office acceptance. Then, there was the question of organisation. I must say that I cannot exactly say whether it was the influence of the Congress Socialist Party. But I do think that the Congress Socialist Party working in a more or less organised way, though being a loosely organised party, did give a more radical turn to the national policies as a whole.Progressive Writers Association
Sharma: You have been closely associated with the formation of the Progressive Writers Association. How was it first started?
Zaheer: That is a long story. The first group, which called itself the Progressive Writers Group of young Indian writers, was formed in England in 1935, and in this there were five or six of us. Mulk Raj Anand, Promode Sen Gupta, Dr M.D. Tasir of Lahore, one or two other Indians who were in England at that time and were interested in literature, and myself. I had only written a few short stories, one or two poems, a few essays. So we got together and we said, We should have a progressive writers movement in our country and we should write down our views in a manifesto.
So after a great deal of discussion and several drafts having been made, the first manifesto of the Progressive Writers was finalised. We formed the Indian Progressive Writers Association in London and held several meetings. One of the earliest meetings was addressed by Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, who happened to be in London in those days. Then, in subsequent meetings, we used to meet in the cellar of a Chinese restaurant near Tottenham Court Road. The proprietor was very sympathetic to Indian revolutionaries and he used to give us quite cheaply his cellar, where 30 to 40 people could meet. In our meetings, 10 to 20 people used to come. Soon after that I came back to India. But even when I had not come, we had sent copies of our manifesto to our friends in India. Then, I came back home in December 1935, and was living in Allahabad. There I discussed this idea of starting a progressive writers movement with some friends in the university, like Raghupati Sahai Firaq, Ahmed Ali, Bishamber Nath Pandey, Miss Shyam Kumari Nehru and some other people. And we decided to form a Progressive Writers Association in Allahabad. I remember, its first meeting was held in my house. When I say my house I mean my fathers house, where I was living. And for the first meeting, you will be, perhaps, amused to know, Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit also came and some other 30 or 40 people in Allahabad, who were not themselves writers but who were interested [in literature] also came.
But the real big push forward, I should think, was given to our movement by Prem Chand and from the Urdu side by Josh Malliahabadi and Maulana Abdul Haq, who also came to Allahabad to attend a conference organised by the Hindustani Academy. Now Firaq, my other friend Ahmed Ali, then some young people who were in M.A. at that time also joined men like Shivdan Singh Chauhan, Narendra Sharma, Harash Dev Malaviya and Ramesh Sinha. So, we approached our big leaders, and to our great joy, Prem Chand looked at the manifesto and so did Josh Malliahabadi. They entirely approved of it, but only expressed doubt whether we would do anything about it, or whether it was just a youthful exuberance and the whole thing would end there. But they signed our manifesto.
I had also started working in the Congress, the Congress Socialist Party and the Communist Party. At this time, I was quite close to Pandit Nehru and I talked to him also about this and he also liked the idea. Acharya Narendra Deva, Jayaprakash Narayan and Rambriksha Benipuri of Bihar also liked it. So, naturally we started expanding, as it were, from Allahabad. At Calcutta, there was my friend Hiren Mukerjee to whom I sent the manifesto and he took it to other Bengali writers. Rabindranath Tagore was also approached; similarly Sarojini Naidu was approached; so was Maulana Hasart Mohani and in that way we contacted even some of our greatest writers as well as younger writers, who were, more or less, patriotic minded and who believed in this kind of literature. That is to say, that literature must serve the cause of the people and the biggest cause at that time was the liberation struggle of the Indian people. So we got general sympathy and support from our political leaders, I mean, the Congress leaders like Panditji, Mrs. Naidu and Maulana Azad. These were the three people who, one can say, took interest in matters of culture and literature. Then the Congress Socialist leaders, I must say with emphasis, took a deep interest in it, particularly, Jayaprakash Narayan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Asoka Mehta and Achyut Patwardhan. So at Allahabad, we decided to hold the first conference of the All India Progressive Writers and to form an All India Progressive Writers Association at Lucknow at the same time as the session of the Indian National Congress. That was in April 1936. We approached Prem Chand to preside over this session at Lucknow, which was held in the Rafai-am Hall, the place where many historic meetings were held, where the non-cooperation movement and Khilafat meetings had been held.
Prem Chand presided over this meeting and he read out a brilliant address, which, I think, is still probably the best manifesto of the entire Progressive Writers Movement, even up to now, because it lays down clearly the main objectives of the literature generally and of the progressive writings particularly. In this conference, I remember, I specially approached Sarojini Naidu. She promised to come, but at the last moment, she could not come. So she sent a message. But Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay came and, I think, she spoke also. Asoka Mehta attended. Jayaprakash Narayan, I am not sure whether he came. Jayaprakash Narayan and Narendra Devaji were, probably, at that time either in the working committee meetings, or were very busy with other things. So that is the beginning of the Progressive Writers Movement.