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Mainstream, VOL LV No 46 New Delhi November 4, 2017

Russian Revolution and India

Monday 6 November 2017


by Shaukat Usmani

The approaching fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution brings to mind many episodes connected with it. This Golden Jubilee of that great historical event of 1917 takes us back to the blessings of our own national liberation struggle which was then intensifying. It is no exaggeration to state that the October Revolution had a great impact on Indian natioinalism and on the colonial revolutionary movemnt throughout the entire enslaved Orient.


The Indian revolutionaries who had uptill then been drawing inspiration from the Kaiserian Germany, turned towards the Soviet Union for succour. Leader after leader of this extreme wing of Indian revolutionary movement began focussing his attention on the success of the Russian Revolution. Even the school children at that period avidly read the accounts of the victories of the Red Army over the hordes led by Kolchak, Yudenitch, Petlura, Deniken and Wrangle, allied to the interventionists of the West, under the leadership of British imperialism, the strongest enemy of all revolutionary movements.

Germany’s defeat in the World War I brought the Indian revolutionaries, working abroad, within the orbit of Moscow.

And it was during this time that a great wave of discontent and revolutionary upsurge was sweepng over the length and breadth of India.

A quasi-nationalist movement known as the Khilafat Movement joined the Indian National Congress, step by step from 1918 onwards, and by 1920 merged entirely into the latter, presenting a united front to the foreign rulers. But the Indian National Congress at the time had no programme of complete breakaway from the British Empire, and thus a rift had started between the Congress and the revolutionary elements working from within it. There was no question of a caste or creed in these elements. These were the votaries of full independence.

Seeing the increasing popularity of Lenin and the Russian leaders of the revolution among the Indians and particularly among the younger generation, the British imperialism had started a virulent propaganda against everything connected with Bolshevism, and this very propaganda of Britain had an adverse effect for the colonialist rulers. The more the bad things were said against the Russian Revolution the more the masses of India attached an opposing meaning to all the calumny, and hugged the Russian Revolution as their own. This, of course, had alarmed the bour-geois leadership of the country which at one stage had gone so far as to declare that “if the Bolsheviks try to invade India they would side with Britain”. This quotation may be a paraphrase of what they actually said if one looks into the old files of the Indian newspapers of the time; when the Indian national movement was on in 1920-22 one would come across these very sentences and the very inner feelings of the pro-British section of the national leadership of the time. Even Young India took up almost such a position.

Floodgates of the colonial revolt were let loose by the new ideology emanating from north. From Indonesia to Egypt the colonial slaves were in revolt against the imperialist exploiters. One instance would suffice to show that even the kingdoms under British thumb were up in arms against their masters. Afghanistan, which had remained for long a semi-colony of the Viceroys at New Delhi and the India Office in London, overthrew the old order by murdering the then king of Afghanistan, Amir Habibullah Khan in February 1919. The young king, Amanullah Khan, who ascended the throne at once declared war against Britain and wrested full freedom.

And this very king made a common cause with the Indian liberation movement, and invited those Indians to his country who could not satisfy their conscience under the British rule. This of-course applied to the Muslims who had risen against Britain because of the wrongs to the Turkish Khilafat by the Allies, who had dismembered the Ottoman Empire much to the chagrin of the entire Islamic world.

Mass Massacre

The April 1919 mass massacre by a colonial General, General Dyer, at Amritsar in the Jallianwala Bagh swayed the entire population of India and the quasi-nationalist movement of the Muslims known as the Khilafat Movement wore the full dress of nationalism and made its followers to be prepared to shed their blood for the freedom of India.

This dastardly General, who died a very painful and miserable death a few years after the mass massacre, had mowed down by machine guns several thousand men, women and children of all ages. History took its revenge on the perpetrators of this dastardly, crime. The history of 1940 shows us how Sir Michael O’ Dyer, the Lt. Govrnor of Punjab, who had dittoed the massacre order at Jallianwala Bagh, met with a violent death at the hands of a young Indian by the name of Udham Singh, commonly known to his London friends by the name of Baba. The Albert Room in the Caxton Hall of London is a living memory to Jallianwala Bagh where this shooting took place.

Exodus to Soviet Union

A novel conference of the extremists was held at Delhi in the beginning of the third week of April 1920 to consider the Amanullah invitation to perform Hijrat (migration in preparation for a sacred war) to Afghanistan.

There was first considered the question of a Jehad (holy war) against Britain but this was not possible under the circumstances and thus the resolution calling upon the Muslims to emigrate away to Afghanistan was passed.

The British Government saw the possibility of getting rid of the turbulent elements of the country by allowing them to go away to Afghanistan. Thus the exodus started and as many as 36,000 according to some authorities, and 20,000 according to the British records, left for Afghanistan in the second quarter of 1920.

The mass exodus that started in the month of May, 1920 to Afghanistan was not confined to the Muslims alone. Many Hindu youths also utilised this opportunity and taking Muslim names crossed into Afghanistan and then into the Soviet Union.

The idea of the Indians leaving for Afghanistan was to obtain military aid and arms from Afghanistan and then descending into the fastnesses of the mountains overlooking Khyber Pass and other British positions to start a sort of guerilla warfare.

But their hopes were dashed by the flat refusal of the Afghan administration to allow the emigrants this dream of a direct fight with the British authorities.

We are not exaggerating if we state here that almost a great majority of the people who had come over to Afghanistan had focussed their hopes on the Soviet Union much before leaving their homes. Now the Afghan refusal led them to make efforts to cross into the Soviet territory. But alas! Only two batches consisting of bare 80 each were allowed to leave Afghanistan for the northern climes. The third batch, which wanted to force its way, was actually confronted with armed resistance by the Afghan authorities.

It was about the middle of August or so that the first batch of Indians composed mainly of students and a few soldiers and civilians hazarded a journey by foot over the difficult Afghan mountains; and covering the distance of nearly 300 miles in less than three weeks reached the Soviet Union, crossing the Oxus at Patakesar on the Afghan side to Tirmiz on the Soviet territory.

The tumultuous reception that this motley crowd got at the hands of the Soviet people and the army raise the spirits of these revolutionaries. They saw with their own eyes that there was no colour bar in the Soviet Union, that the Russians mixed freely with the Turkemans, Sards, Uzbeks, Tadjiks and Tatars. This indeed was a real cultural revolution.


This had a very good effect on these emigrants and raised their hopes of a genuine comradeship with the Soviet people. This was also an indirect promise that the Soviet people would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Indians in their fight against British imperialism. And this picture of their vision of Soviet aid became a reality when they heard from the mouth of responsible Soviet personalities themselves that they would aid India in achieving her freedom.

So we eightytwo Indians were now the guests of the Great Republic.

This was the time when the Bokhara Revolution was on. The first attempt of the Bokhara revolutionaries had failed earlier as the Soviet Union had then been engaged in expelling the armed intervention by thirteen to fourteen governments spearheaded by Britain and the USA as also by other imperialist powers of the East and the West.

After the second half of 1920 the Soviet Union focussed its attention on the liberation of the Turkestan territory from the feudal lords and the agents of world imperialism.

It was during this time that we were in Tirmiz; and Tirmiz was cut off from the rest of the Soviet territory by the forces of Amir of Bokhara and the counter-revolutionary Turkeman followers of his.

Split among Muhajireen

It is a historically known and well-publicised fact that these Muhajireen (this was the name by which we were known) had a split in Tirmiz; one section wanting to go to Turkey and fight side by side with the Turks; while the second batch wanted to obtain the Soviet aid and fight against Britain directly in India. And this split was responsible for the terrible fate that visited the emigrants. Much against the advice of the Russian comrades, the group bound for Turkey asked for boats to travel further to catch the train for Krasnovodsk en route to Turkey via Baku.

It is no use making this episode a long story. The other group had to board the boats with their co-travellers, and the next day the entire lot fell into the hands of the forces of the Amir of Bokhara. What fate these 82 men met is well described in many accounts of the period. Suffice it to say that they were driven like cattle for a long distance from dawn to dusk and then put in a cattle-shed in a caravanserai which served as a prison. And ultimately after a couple of weeks they were taken out to be shot. How they were saved from this horrible fate can be gathered from the following accounts:

“After weeks of agony, we were taken to a crater-like place, full of dry bones. We imagined at first that they were the bones of cattle but it suddenly dawned on us in a flash that they were human bones. This was their favourite murder spot, we would be killed in a matter of minutes.

“We were asked to sit in the Muslim posture of prayer, and our captors encircled us in two rings. The elders sat a little distance away, on a mound. An order was shouted, and the soldiers loaded their rifles. They shouted in clear, unmistakeable Persian, ‘This is the first order of death. Two more will come before you are shot. If you move or try to run away, we will shoot you without hesitation.’... Even in the face of death there were some among us who spoke a few encouraging consoling words to their comrades.

Boom! It was the distant report of a powerful gun. Our hopes rose yet again, but were shattered when the elders shouted the second order of death. The soldiers levelled their fifles at our heads. Boom! This time the report was nearer, and some shrapnel burst near the soldiers. They became panicky; it was a gunboat coming up the Oxus. Hastily the soldiers withdrew the order of death, and decided to take us as slaves. Soon we were divided among the elders, like goats and led away in groups in different directions.”

How were we saved? Here is another description:

“During this period, about the middle of October, a small flat-bottomed steamer arrived and laid anchor on our side of the Fronts. The complement in this Prakhot was very small, yet they had a gun on board the boat.“

“It was at this time that we learnt the truth about those two life-saving shrapnels which had saved our lives, and the Turkemans, instead of shooting us, had made us slaves.”

In short, what happened after our being made slaves here are a few more reports to make the story complete.

“Hardly had we passed two weeks of our slavery that one night we saw the bursting of search-light bombs, and there was a noise of shelling and machine gun firing. However, in the far distance was the machine-gun noise, yet it created a hope in us that the rescue was near.

“Couple of nights like this one, and one day we saw the Mullah sealing his wares and utensils in a wall cup-board. The next we saw the female embers leaving the house... How lovely the Mullah looked to us one morning when he announced, Azad (free), after removing our fetters. He himself bade us goodbye after mounting his horse.”

It should be noted here that this Mullah was one of the persons who had got two of us as slaves in his share.

And the reference here to the Prakhot is to the time when we had taken up positions in the old fort at Kirki known as the Bokhara Fort. We were guarding a front stretching about a mile and half along the River Oxus. The crew and the Captain of the Prakhot described to us that they had not known what the Turkomens were dealing with us in tht crater-like abyss but that they had espied some people perched on a mound and as the area was up in arms against the Jadedies* and the Soviet Union they had just fired two shrapnels to dispese these.

(To be continued)

*The Young elements in Bokhara who overthrew the Amir’s rule were known as Jadedies, meaning progressive.

Shaukat Usmani (Maulla Bux Usta) (1901-1978) was an early Indian Communist. A member of the émigré Communist Party of India, established in Tashkent in 1920, he was a founding member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) when it wss formed in Kanpur in 1925. He was also the only candidate to the British Parliament contesting elections, while he was residing in India—that too in a prison. He was sentenced to a total of 16 years in jail after being tried in the Kanpur (Cawnpore) Case of 1923 and later the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929.This article he wrote specially for Mainstream fifty years ago on the occasion of the October Revolution’s fiftieth anniversary. It was published in July-August 1967. This is the article’s first instalment. The other instalments will be reproduced in the next few issues.

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