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How far left of Partition?

by Ishtiaq Ahmed, 11 October 2015

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The Friday Times, 25 September 2015

Where did the Communist Party of India (CPI) stand on the issue of the country’s freedom from the British … and its partition into India and Pakistan?

Although the CPI was formally established on 25 December 1925 at the first Kanpur Party Conference, by 1920 some Indian émigrés in Tashkent had already established a Communist nucleus – both developments that the British viewed with the utmost dismay and alarm. During 1922–27, a number of cases (known collectively as the Peshawar Conspiracy Case) were initiated against such people. The 1925 Kanpur Conspiracy Case and the 1929 Meerut Conspiracy Case followed, indicating that the colonial government was determined to nip the Communist spectre in the bud: in 1934, the CPI was banned. Despite severe repression, the Communists worked through legal parties, trade unions and peasant committees.
Nehru and Gandhi - how far left?

Nehru and Gandhi – how far left?

It is important to put the role of the Indian National Congress (INC) and its two main leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, into perspective. One view prevalent on the Left, especially the Maoist Left, is that Gandhi was an obstacle to armed revolution against British rule. Nehru is considered, at best, a Fabian leftist who wanted to consolidate a strong state serving the interests of the national bourgeoisie. Given that, overall, social forces in the Subcontinent had remained backward with society compartmentalised by caste and religion, it is doubtful if the Communists had stood any chance of taking the lead in the freedom struggle. In any case, most Indian Communists at the time considered the INC both an ally and a hurdle to the struggle against imperialism.

The main theoretician of international Communism, V. I. Lenin, wrote that, given the underdeveloped nature of class relations in the colonies, Communists should work with their bourgeois nationalist parties against imperialism. However, the sixth congress of the Communist International, held in 1928 when Stalin was in power, adopted the colonial thesis, which called upon the Indian communists to oppose their ‘national-reformist leaders’ and to ‘unmask the national reformism of the INC and oppose the Swarajists, Gandhists and all forms of passive resistance’. Consequently, when left-wing elements within the INC formed a caucus, the Congress Socialist Party, the CPI denounced it as being social fascist.
The Quit India movement

The Quit India movement

A few years later, when Nazism emerged in Germany and Hitler’s men took to targeting the working class movement, the Communist International (‘Comintern’) recommended once again building alliances with democratic national bourgeois parties. Accordingly, the Indian communists began to join the Congress Socialist caucus. From the outset, however, they differed on their relationship with the Soviet Union and the Comintern. Most CPI leaders decided to coordinate their activities in line with the Comintern, but a minority wanted the CPI to remain independent and freely decide its national goals and objectives.

When World War II broke out in 1939, the Nazi war machine’s initial thrust westward appeared to be unstoppable. Britain seemed vulnerable and weak, committing its colonies to the war nevertheless. Recruitment to the Indian Army intensified. At that moment, the INC made a political calculation that inadvertently paved the way for the All-India Muslim League (AIML) to break through into the political arena, ultimately winning Pakistan. In November 1939, the INC resigned from the ministries it had formed in eight provinces to protest against India being committed to the war without the British having consulted the people’s elected representatives.
Bhagat Singh before his trial in 1929-30

Bhagat Singh before his trial in 1929-30

The CPI went even further. In 1940, a call for a revolutionary uprising reverberated through its cadres. Not only did Gandhi oppose such radicalism, but the left wing of the INC (including Nehru) also deemed such a call extremist. As a result, the Communists were expelled from the Congress Socialist Party.

Meanwhile, the AIML, which had been routed out in the 1937 election, began to garner support among Muslims in minority and majority provinces on the grounds that a Hindu Raj would replace the British Raj unless a separate Muslim state was created to protect Muslims and Muslim culture. The British, frustrated by the INC’s lack of support for the war effort, began to cultivate the AIML. The INC remained oblivious to the threat such an alliance could pose to its credentials of claiming to represent all Indians. It veered into a head-on collision with the government by launching the Quit India Movement in August 1942.
Subhash Chandra Bose inspecting INA troops

Subhash Chandra Bose inspecting INA troops

Viceroy Linlithgow was prepared for such an eventually and let the authorities loose. Mass arrests, public whippings and even hangings followed and the Congress leadership was put in prison, from which most did not return until June 1945 (Gandhi was released in 1944). This gave the AIML a window in which to captivate the Muslim imagination by promising little short of paradise on earth if Pakistan came into being.

Apparently, the INC’s decision not to cooperate with the colonial government was partly the result of an inner tussle for leadership between Subhash Chandra Bose, who had wanted to launch an armed uprising, and Gandhi and Nehru, who were not willing to go that far. Bose is a hero to those who believe he represented true secularism and that India would have been liberated had he taken over leadership of the INC. I doubt that such speculation is warranted. Bose sought help from the Nazis and then shifted to Japan and raised the Indian National Army (INA), consisting of Indian soldiers and officers captured by the Japanese. The INA was no match for the British once they had recovered from their early reversals of fortune: wherever the INA fought the Allied forces, it met defeat.

My research on Punjab’s partition reveals disconcerting evidence that former INA personnel took a leading part in the communal riots and were involved in attacks on minorities. With some exceptions, the INA was essentially a rag-tag army of people wanting to escape harsh treatment by the Japanese. Bose must have known the atrocities the Nazis were committing against the Jews, Slavs and other minorities because he had lived in Germany for some time. And he most certainly had first-hand knowledge of the extreme cruelty the Japanese Imperial Army meted out to the Chinese and other peoples of Southeast Asia.

This puts into perspective the overall situation in which the Communists had to make certain political choices. Once again, the international situation determined the direction of Communist politics in India. Having given the call to armed revolution in 1940, the CPI swung in the opposite direction when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. The party argued that the world situation had transformed from a war between competing imperialist powers to a people’s war against fascism. Consequently, the CPI offered to cooperate with the British in India. In return, in July 1942 the party was legalized by the government.
One of the CPI founders, M N Roy, with his wife Ellen Gottschalk in Bombay, March 1937

One of the CPI founders, M N Roy, with his wife Ellen Gottschalk in Bombay, March 1937

Its newfound freedom and respectability helped the CPI strengthen its influence over the All India Trade Union Congress. Some Communists even joined government service at senior levels. Not surprisingly, the INC looked upon this novel liaison askance, although Nehru continued to enjoy personal respect and admiration among key Communist leaders for having steadfastly upheld secularism and opposed communalism, especially its Hindu majoritarian strains.

The most noteworthy change in the CPI’s political orientation was in its relations with the AIML and the latter’s demand for a separate Muslim state. In March 1940, when the AIML had given the call for a separate Muslim state, the CPI had shown no interest. The idea of a nation founded on the basis of religion was anathema to orthodox Communism. After all, Marxist classics categorically rejected religion as the basis of nationalism, deeming it reactionary and unenlightened. However, by September 1942, this theory had begun to change. The CPI passed a resolution accepting the Muslim claim of being a nation in its own right; the creation of Pakistan was seen as necessary to enable the Muslims to overcome the poverty and backwardness capitalism had produced during the colonial period.

The Adhikari thesis of 1943 made the rather odd point that, if the Muslim-majority provinces were granted the right to cede from India, this would lay the basis for a true united front against British colonialism and make the case for Pakistan redundant. The idea stemmed from the fiction of the right of nations to cede from the Soviet Union – something Stalin ensured was nothing more than an exercise on paper. In any event, the INC remained strictly opposed to agreeing to any such right with the AIML so as to join ranks against the British. Once a stand was taken in favour of the creation of Pakistan, the CPI bade its Muslim cadres to join the Muslim League and help it acquire a more class-based political approach instead of only a religious one.

Here, it is important to bring into the picture the situation in Punjab. At the beginning of the twentieth century, two contrasting political traditions had emerged in the province. The British, of course, patronized Punjab, investing heavily in its development as a progressive agricultural economy. Additionally, under the so-called ‘martial races theory’, some districts, castes and tribes were given preference in recruitment to the British Indian Army – Punjabis dominated the army in both world wars. But the benefits of British patronage were not evenly distributed and, as tends to happen in capitalist development, some sections of society were badly hit by the changes underway in the world economy. The poor peasants and artisans of Punjab’s overpopulated central districts became the main losers in its otherwise increasing prosperity.

The first signs of unrest arose in Canada and the West Coast of the US. A large number of Punjabis – overwhelmingly Sikh, but also Hindu and Muslim – had been trying to settle in Canada, but the racist laws applicable at the time made this very difficult. These émigré Punjabis formed the Ghadar Party and established networks in many parts of the world. The first attempt to stir people into rising against the British, therefore, took place in central Punjab. The Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1915 was the first such case against Punjabis. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919, followed by the efforts of Bhagat Singh and his associates to challenge colonial power – in the process resorting to acts of terrorism – contrasted with the loyalty the landed classes and spiritual divines had rendered to the British. The Sikhs were disproportionately overrepresented in all such radical challenges to imperialism. Many joined the Communist Party in Punjab.

The CPI’s decision to support the demand for Pakistan found the Sikh Communists alienated from such a standpoint. The AIML’s campaign for Pakistan became increasingly communal and was fired with Islamic symbolism and imagination. On the other hand, some Muslim comrades in Punjab, who had joined the AIML, got carried away, raising class-based slogans in favour of Pakistan as though it were destined to be a socialist Islamic state.

Where was the Soviet Union in all this? Its leaders remained ambivalent about the creation of Pakistan. They realized that a partitioned India could strengthen the hand of the British, who might choose to use Pakistan as a base to contain the spread of Communism. But the Soviets were also amenable to the idea that Pakistan could be a more radical state based on Islamic socialism as their colleagues in the Subcontinent were suggesting. The Soviet academic, Yuri Zhukov, who visited India in March 1947, returned with the belief that the creation of Pakistan would not harm Soviet interests in the Subcontinent.

Pakistan’s own story had yet to begin.


The above article from The Friday Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use