Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 34
Communists and ‘Quit India’ Struggle
Sunday 10 August 2008, by
This was the week, fiftytwo years ago, that marked the parting of ways between the Communists and the Congress. It was the Communist opposition to the ‘Quit India’ resolution at the historic AICC session in August 1942 that ultimately led to the expulsion of the Communists from the Congress organisations in 1946. Incidentally, the eviction of the Communists from the Congress marked the beginning of the process of transformation of the Congress from an all-embracing national platform to the personality of a party in the modern sense, which harboured only the appurtenances of power as its ideology. The aspect of the Congress as a national platform in the pre-independence days is often missed by the generations which have come after independence; as a result one finds learned scholars trying to put the Congress of the past into the straightjacket of a modern political entity with ideological cohesion. In fact, the Congress in those days was like a huge umbrella under which men and women adhering to diverse and sometimes conflicting ideologies lived in coexistence—from the Socialists and the Communists in the Left to radical nationalists, and on to the conservative Right.
Looking back to the early thirties when the present writer as a college student had his political awakening, one regarded the Congress as the national platform with a single-point programme of ousting the British imperial power from the shores of our motherland. The stalwarts of the mighty civil disobedience movement, which was set in motion by Gandhiji’s famous Dandi march initiating the salt satyagraha, had disparate outlooks on social and economic issues as also about designing the edifice of independent India. It was not an easy task to maintain the unity of the team—the term High Command had just come into vogue. I remember in our school days in the twenties, when the national leader of Bengal was Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das; he with Motilal Nehru had voted for Gandhiji’s boycott of the legislature and alongwith Motilal Nehru formed the Swarajya Party and swept the polls despite the very restricted franchise and limited powers of self-government under the Montford constitutional set-up—Montague was the Secretary of State for India in the British Cabinet and Chelmsford was the Viceroy at that time.
The political folktales of those days was that Motilal Nehru, who had given up his lucrative practice at the Bar, was so much of an aristocrat that not only did he send his son to the British public school where the royalty sent their progenies, but even his clothes used to be sent for laundry all the way from Allahabad to Paris. As for Chittaranjan Das, he gave up his own sprawling mansion in Calcutta to be later turned into a hospital named after him. The sacrifice of worldly belongings by the leaders helped to rouse thousands upon thousasnds of political activists to give up everything for the freedom struggle. This was how a mighty national festival of supreme sacrifice was witnessed as they gave up their very life and unflinchingly faced persecution, imprisonment and even gallows. Going to prison at the call of the Congress was in those days a badge of honour.
Coming to the Communists and the Congress, differences in outlook and ideology were there all through though that did not come in the way of their being enlisted in the Congress. The present writer first heard the name of Dange as a fire-brand who had written a book Lenin and Gandhi in which non-violence was attacked as a futile mode of struggle for the revolutionary goal. This was the running streak of the Communists throughout on the ideological plane—their stand against the abjuration of violence in mass struggle as advocated by Gandhiji. Later, in the thirties when Aldous Huxley’s book, Ends and Means, became a big hit, a young Indian intellectual in London wrote a sharp Marxist rejoinder to it in the shape of a neat little volume entitled Ends are Means. The name of that young Marxist was Krishna Shelvankar who after independence was, for many years, a well-known correspondent of The Hindu. Shelvankar’s polemics against Aldous Huxley became almost a staple fare for budding Indian Communists in Britain, many of whom, on return home, figured in the country’s active politics. It was about this time that the British Communist leader, Rajni Palme Dutt’s book, India Today—in which Gandhi was branded as the “Joneh of Indian revolution”—had a negative influence on Indian Communists.
This debate between violence and non-violence as a mode of mass movement long persisted within the Congress in which not only Marxists but other revolutionary groups functioned while adhering to violent means. The entire contingent of Bengal revolutionaries together with a large section of their comrades in UP and Punjab were active Congressmen, some of them holding elected offices in the organisastion. The Socialists in the Congress were by and large critical of non-violence at that time though they did not denounce it as the Communists did. In contrast, the militant actions by armed revolutionaries did not lead to their exit from the Congress. In fact, many of the district Committees of the Congress in Bengal and the Pradesh Congress itself were controlled by these revolutionary groups whose leaders were star figures in the Congress as well.
That was also the case with the Communists. Few today would remember that some of the top leaders of the Communist Party were also well-known Congress leaders. The present writer can recall, among others, S.G. Sardesai, Bankim Mukherjee, P. Ramamurti, Z.A. Ahmed, R.D. Bharadwaj, Hiren Mukherjee and Dinkar Mehta.
Differences over the question of violence did not prevent Gandhiji from keeping up his dialogue with the Communists and other revolutionaries. When the British Government, in a sudden swoop in 1929, framed the top Communist leaders in the famous Meerut Conspiracy case, Gandhiji went to meet them in prison. He did the same with the Bengal revolutionaries in 1937 and wanted their release from detention. At the Ramgarh Congress in 1940, the present writer was witness to the extraordinary scene when Gandhi took in his car a top underground Communist leader to the Subjects Committee session so that he could move the Communist amendment to the official resolution.
Prelude to the ‘Quit India’ struggle in 1942, the Communist campaign against fascism was more or less along the lines that Nehru had taken. The issue became urgent when Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941. There was intense interest all over the country about the Russian resistance to Hitler’s advance. Even Tagore on his death-bed was reported to have repeatedly enquired about the news of the war and blessed the heroic Russians for defending not only their motherland but civilisation itself. At that time Jawaharlal Nehru undertook a countrywide tour rousing public opinion against Hitler’s fascism. This was intensified when Japan joined the war in December 1941 and quickly ousted the British from Singapore and Burma. Chiang Kaishek and his madam visited Calcutta on his way back for consultation with Churchill and Roosevelt at Cairo. Nehru came to Calcutta to meet them and there was a special lunch for the leaders at the Birla House in South Calcutta. It was all laid out in Indian style with low seats and tables and silver dishes.
While Nehru’s mass campaign against fascism set the tone for Congressmen there were, however, differences within the Congress High Command on the question of the War itself. The dominant opinion was that this was the moment to press for the British promise of independence after the war, with an interim government with considerable powers to rule the country; in return for this could the British Government get the cooperation of the Congress in the war effort. This was discussed thoroughly and frankly within the Congress Working Committee. It needs to be noted that by that time, Subhas Chandra Bose had already formed the Azad Hind Fauj and was advancing towards the Indian border alongwith the Japanese Army. The British Government leaked out the proceedings of the Congress Working Committee, which might have precipitated the Congress decision to call the AICC meeting in Bombay in the first week of August to go into mass direct action against the government, which later came to be known as the ‘Quit India’ struggle.
This was the moment of truth for the Communists—would they go with the Congress, in which they were part of the militant vanguard, or stay away fro the sake of what they had already started calling the Russian struggle as the world’s People’s War?
A brief resume of how the Indian Communists reached the People’s War is revealing. When the war broke out in August 1939, the Communists branded it as the imperialist war, in which the British and the French were only mock fighters but really egging on Hitler to go East against Soviet Russia. At that time, the Communist slogan at the Ramgarh Congress in 1940 was: “Yeh ladai samrajyashahi, na ek pai, na ek bhai (This is a war of the imperialists, not a pie for it to be given, nobody to join it)”. When Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941, the Communist stand changed—they ceased to brand it an imperialist war, but called it a people’s war.
However, the Indian Communist leaders at first reiterated that their fight against British power in India must continue until a national government had been formed. This stand actually led to intense debate within the Communist Party itself. An important section of the Communist leadership was then imprisoned at the Deoli Detention Camp. A group of Communist leaders, with B.T. Ranadive at its head, sent a note to the Communist leadership outside denouncing its stand and asking for cooperation with the war effort to stand in solidarity with the Soviet Union. This was circulated by the Polit-Bureau to the party ranks together with its rejoinder refuting the document from the jail.
The position suddenly changed in December 1941 when the British Communist leader, Harry Pollitt, sent the Comintern directive that Russia’s war against Hiotler must be taken up as the People’s War by all Communists and, therefore, the Indian Communists must do the same. Overnight, the CPI leadership fell in line with the Comintern as the per the Pollitt letter. In a couple of weeks, the All India Students’ Federation, one of the mass organisations under the Communist control at that time, met for its annual conference at Patna, and from there the Communists initiated the public campaign for People’s War. While the demarcation with the Congress stand became sharper, the Indian Communists did not at that time go as far as the followers of M.N.Roy did in openly working with the British Government’s war efforts in this country. This distinction was, however, blurred to a large measure in the public eye, when the ‘Quit India’ struggle suddenly came like a mighty avalanche sweeping over the entire country.
What was the precise Communist position at the Bombay AICC and how did the Congress leadership tackle them? At that time, the Communists had a small but active contingent in the AICC. Many of them did not go to the Bombay AICC; they knew by that time what its outcome would be. Just over a dozen of them were present at the AICC and the amendments they moved were mostly to avert the immediate unleashing of a mass campaign against the British Government but to forge unity between the Congress and the Muslim League so that they together might extract a national government as a prelude to freedom. They knew these amendments were fore-doomed. In his final speech Gandhiji congratulated the Communists for their courage to dissent, to “learn not to lose courage even when we are in a hopless minority and the laughed at”.
In the nationwide ‘Quit India’ struggle that followed the Bombay AICC, the Communists not only kept out but at many places actively intervened so that strikes did not disrupt production which might hamper war efforts. Their political campaign was totally ineffective and thoroughly isolated them from the entire segments of the public who came forward to participate in the ‘Quit India’ struggle.
In 1994 when Gandhiji came out of prison, the Communist Party leadership represented their position before him seeking to neutralise the angry complaints of many Congressmen against the Communistss. One of the young Comunists so sent to Gandhiji was Mohan Kumaramanglam who later on, in the late sixties, himself left the CPI and joined the Congress and became an important Minister under Indira Gandhi after the 1971 elections.
But these representations to Gandhiji did not help the Communists. When the bulk of the Congressmen were released from prison in 1945, there were angry attacks on the Communists at many places and the raiding of their office premises. What is significant is that this outburst of Congressmen was confined against Communists alone and not against those Congress leaders who had stayed away from the ‘Quit India’ movement. The formality of Communist expulsion from the Congress came towards the end of 1946. Two years later, the Socialists on their own left the Congress, thereby making it clear that nonconformists would have no place within the Congress.
This was the turning point within the premier party in the country . In five years, one found many of the heroes of the storm-centres of the ‘Quit India’ struggle of 1942 finding themselves in the company of the Communists—Nana Patil of Satara, Ajoy Mukherje of Tamluk, Vir Bahadur Singh in Balia-Azamgarh, and Aruna Asaf Ali herself.
It’s time the Communists as well as the Congress alongwith leaders of other parties reviewed their respective positions since that magnificent struggle of 1942.
(Mainstream, August 13, 1994)