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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 19, May 1, 2010

A Learned History of the Socialist Movement

Saturday 1 May 2010, by Surendra Mohan



(1) Bharat mein Loktantrik Samajwadi Andolan—Bhag Ek: Congress Socialist Party (1934-47) by Girija Shankar; Vishwa Bharati Publications, 4378/4D Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi; 2004; pages 465+ix; Rs 750.

(2) Bharat mein Loktantrik Samajwadi Andolan—Bhag Do: Socialist Party (1947-52) by Girija Shankar; Vishwa Bharati Publications, 4378/4D Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi; 2009; pages 395+xv+45 photographs; Rs 950.

Some histories of various phases of the socialist movement have been written by political scientists and historians and some others by the participants in it. Among them, the earliest possibly was the History of the Praja Socialist Party by Hari Kishore Singh who published it in 1958. The book covered the period from the founding of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934 to 1955 when the party, which had changed its name to the Praja Socialist Party, suffered a major split. Hari Kishore Singh, an activist of the Socialist Youth Organisation, prepared this book as a dissertation for his degree from the Oxford University. Singh remained active in politics and was the Minister of State for External Affairs in the National Front Government in 1989 and 1990. Thereafter Professor S.C. Gangal of Aligarh wrote on the socialist movement from 1934 to 1971. Two socialist activists, Prof Vinod Prasad Singh and Dr Sunilam, thereafter published documents including policy statements, resolutions and correspondence among leaders of the movement. That book covered the period from 1934 to 1952 and was written in Hindi. Madhu Limaye, the socialist leader and parliamentarian, has written extensively on the subject in his books The Age of Hope and the Birth of non-Congressism. Autobiographies by senior socialist leaders, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Nirbhay Shankar Pandya, S.N. Dwivedi and S.M. Joshi, also shed lot of light on the facts concerning the history of the Socialist Parties, including their splits and mergers. However, the book by Pandya was in Gujarati and Joshi in Marathi.

Dr Girja Shankar, the founder and head of the History Department of the Choudhry Charan Singh University, has published systematic studies of the history of the Congress Socialist Party from 1934 to 1947 and the history of the Socialist Party from 1947 to 1952 in Hindi. In the first of these books, he has, in the beginning, discussed the background of the formation of the CSP, its relationship with Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose. He has sought to link its foundation with the freedom struggle and pointed to its strong commitment to the latter. A large number of the cadres of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha from the Punjab led by Munshi Ahmed Din and including Kulbir Singh and Kultar Singh, brothers of the great martyr Sardar Bhagat Singh, joined the Congress Socialist Party in 1936. Some others from the revolutionary movement like Sibnath Banerji, Yogendra Shukla, Basawan Singh and Dinesh Dasgupta were also in the Party, thus confirming its link not only with the freedom struggle led by Gandhiji but the other streams as well.


Prof Girja Shankar goes into detail in outlining the Party’s attempt at creating Left Unity with the Communists and the followers of the famous revolutionary M.N. Roy, whom Nehru had personally introduced to the delegates of the Indian National Congress at Faizpur. That unity did not sustain even though Jaya Prakash Narayan, the chief organiser of the Party, and its senior ideologue Acharya Narendra Dev were all for it as they were staunch Marxists and the Party described itself as Marxist-Leninist. The disillusionment from the Soviet Union, which was worshipped by the Communists as the Fatherland of the proletariat, after Stalin introduced the new Constitution in 1936, the Moscow Trials, the pact between the Soviet Union’s Foreign Minister Ribbontrop and the German dictator Hitler, and the erosion of civil liberties was one of the reasons of the split. The other was the Communists’ strategy to create ruptures in the Congress by pushing the Left’s confrontation with the Right after the separation of Bose from the Congress party. The author expresses his disappointment that the unity got ruptured and approvingly quotes Madhu Limaye also in this behalf.

Dr Girja Shankar has painstakingly discussed the thinking of various socialist leaders and the challenge mounted by Dr Lohia, Achyut Patwardhan, Masani and Kamaladevi against JP’s insistence of keeping intact the unity with the Communists. He also refers to the long hunger strike launched by the prisoners in the Deoli Camp Jail against the abysmal conditions in it which the Communists gave up in between, without consulting the socialists, including JP, because of their altered perception of the imperialist war. The Communists started to call it the People’s War and gave full support to the war effort of the British, calling JP and Bose fifth columnists. He has also traced the growing realisation among socialist leaders of the significance of the mass awakening brought by the peaceful nature and the openness of the challenge that the Congress under Gandhi posed against the imperialists. The Congress Socialists’ role in preparing the Congress leaders to launch a direct struggle against the imperial power and their cadres to be ready to strike has been succinctly brought out. He says that dialogues with socialists influenced Gandhi’s thinking also, and at one time, he had offered to them in 1947 that if they foreswore the use of violence, he would become a member of their Party.

The CSP decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly, and Nehru regretted it much because he felt that they could have contributed in strengthening its progressive features. The author has discussed the reasons for it. The Party felt that while direct and indirect members from the princely states were nominated by the princes, other members had been elected by a very restricted electorate. The miscalculation of the CSP, he says, was that they pinned too much faith in Gandhiji and his often stated position that he would never accept the country’s partition. Even when the Interim Government had been installed with Nehru as Vice President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, they continued to insist that the final struggle against the British imperialists was inevitable. In the Working Committee of the Congress Party, JP and Lohia strongly opposed the resolution on the acceptance of partition. Lohia, in his well-known book Guilty Men of India’s Partition, accused Nehru and Patel of making a deal with Lord Mounbatten, the last Viceroy, behind Gandhi’s back. He expressed sorrow that in the end, Gandhi resigned himself to partition.

While the CSP leaders were campaigning for launching the final struggle, the Congress leaders, particularly Sardar Patel, were preparing to ensure that either the CSP is dissolved or it is thrown out. Girja Shankar has described various initiatives taken by Gandhi to bring the two groups together, but he did not succeed. After the Congress leaders refused to accept Gandhi’s suggestion that JP or Narendra Dev should be made Congress President, the CSP decided that it was futile to hope that they will change. After Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress Working Committee adopted a resolution against permitting organised groups’ stay in the party. The CSP then resolved to quit the Congress March 1, 1948. However, they set a healthy tradition by deciding to quit all the elective posts in district and State levels which they had secured as Congressmen. Nehru had tried to dissuade them from leaving the Congress party. The author mentions several letters he wrote to JP and the statements he made, even much after their paring of ways, inviting them back in the Congress party.


The socialist leaders had great hopes in the beginning that the Socialist Party would be able to emerge as the parliamentary alternative to the Congress party. Their model was the Social Democratic and Labour parties in Western Europe. Some election and by-election results convinced Asoka Mehta, who succeeded JP as the General Secretary of the Party, that the chances of the Party were bright. It was forgotten, argues Girija Shankar, that they had thrived only as Congressmen, had been closely identified with the Congress party and had built no separate organisation of their Party. He has discussed the efforts made by the Socialist Party in setting up a separate national tirade union centre, a kisan organisation and a youth organisation. Only the trade union centre continues to exist to date, in the name of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), and is the fourth largest membership, stipulated by it at 65 lakh members. In the All India Railwaymen’s Federation too, the socialists have a lot of influence, and a government-held ballot in 2008 gave it the primary position among all trade unions in the Railways.

The effort to develop the kisan panchayat frittered away after the poor results of the first general election. That this happened even though kisan struggles had been launched, big demonstrations had been held and half-a-million members had been enrolled in the first two years, can only be explained by the shock that that election gave them. As for the youth organization, Dr Girija Shankar paints a saddening picture, which does not appear correct, going by the accounts of those who were active in the Universities of UP and Bombay. He has also failed to follow the story of the National Students Union and says that it died an early death. The fact is that it functioned till 1958, arranged a successful conference of the elected student leaders and helped in creating its successor, the National Council of Unions of Students of India, which functioned till 1966.

But, all this belongs to the period covered in the book named the “Socialist Party: 1947 to 1952”. During this period, a small group of revolutionaries named as the Socialist Party of India, mainly active in UP, merged with the Party. The Bolshevik-Leninist Party, a Trotskyite group, also merged in it. All this was in pursuance of their bid at political consolidation. However, Girija Shankar points to the dismal election results in UP for the by-elections held for the seats vacated in the Legislative Assembly by the Socialists in which only one out of 12 got elected. In the elections to the District Boards, he says, only 108 seats were captured by them. Socialist leaders had then dismissed these reverses as insufficient indication of their influence since the electorate in the elections was a limited one. They were enthused by the response among the youth and students. They attracted a large number of intellectuals and writers, too. Acharya Narendra Dev launched the Nav Sanskriti Sangh, a cultural organisation, which included the most established names in literature in North India. The Khoj Parishad, with its headquarters in Calcutta, headed by the distinguished scientist Dr S.N. Bose, was another such effort.

The book gives detailed accounts of the National Conferences, National Executive meetings etc. and the resolutions adopted by them. The resolutions on National Reconstruction adopted in 1949 at the Patna Conference and National Revival in 1950 at the Madras Conference provide serious thought in respect of the nation’s regeneration. He gives a list of the periodicals and other publications of the Party as also the names of prominent leaders in various States. Thus, the book proves to be a mine of information. Discussing the preparation for the general election, the author says that the financial situation of the Party was a skewed one, and describes how, even then, the Communists and some Congressmen, including Indira Gandhi, accused them of getting money from foreign sources, particularly the USA. He discusses the election strategy, as designed by Asoka Mehta, to contest as many seats as possible in the Union and State legislatures, in order to spread the Party’s message far and wide. The controversy whether the national leaders should or should not contest the elections has also been discussed. JP, says the author, was getting disinclined towards electoral politics while Dr Lohia wanted only to contest against Nehru which the Party disfavoured. Acharya Narendra Dev, Asoka Mehta, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Ramanandan Mishra, among the top leaders, contested and lost.

The Socialist Party secured 10.5 per cent of all the valid votes polled, which should have boosted its morale. But, although it contested 285 seats in the Lok Sabha, it secured only 12. In the State Legislative Assemblies, it put 1805 candidates, out of whom only 128 were successful. On the other hand, the Communist Party and its allies contested only 63 seats in the Lok Sabha, but were able to secure 26 seats, while in the State Assemblies, they contested 563 seats and won 173. The author quotes the socialist leader, Madhu Limaye, to say that it put fear in the minds of the leaders of the Socialist Party that the Communists will be the main rivals of the Congress Party, relegating them to a third position. He says that, barring Lohia, all other leaders were profoundly shaken. This does not appear to be wholly correct. It is well known that Acharya Narendra Dev remained unruffled by the election debacle and his own defeat as he held that the establishment of socialism was hard work entailing several generations and such pitfalls are common. The leaders at State levels like Ganga Sharan Sinha in Bihar, S.N. Dwivedi in Orissa, S.M. Joshi in Maharashtra, C.G.K. Reddy in Karnataka, P.M. Nambiar in Malabar, and C.P. Tewari and Jagdish Joshi in Vindhya Pradesh continued to work as steadfastly as before. Three leaders, however, were greatly affected: JP, Mehta and Mishra. Mishra blamed JP for the debacle and particularly his own defeat which left JP deeply hurt.


While discussing the reasons for the relative performance of the Communists and the Socialists, the author contradicts himself. At one place, he ascribes the Communists’ success to their capture of the All India Trade Union Congress, the All India Kisan Sabha and the All India Students Federation to their anti-imperialist struggle, but, on the next page, he says that as the imperialist government had removed the ban on the CPI, it was able to move freely and this helped the party in capturing these organisations. That was the time when the ‘Quit India’ struggle was going on and most of the socialist and other Left-wing Congress elements were in jails or in the underground. Moreover, at that time, the CPI was collaborating with the imperialists instead of fighting against them. He also refers to the joining of the CSP cadres in the South with the CPI in the late 1930s because of the success of the Soviet Union. It has been forgotten by several observers, including Girija Shankar, that in Karnataka, the PSP continued to exist as the main Opposition party till 970 when four had 4 members in Lok Sabha and 26 in the State Assembly, and all of whom joined the Congress party before the fourth general election. In Andhra Pradesh, too, the Socialist Party led by Lohia fared better than the Communist Party which was shattered by the Hindi-Russi bhai bhai slogan in 1954-55.

Girija Shankar provides a fair analysis of the reactions of JP and Asoka Mehta. JP took it as his personal failure as the leader of the party and slowly withdrew from politics. Asoka Mehta, who was the keenest for quitting the Congress party in 1947, began to think of returning to it. The author says that in the National Executive Committee’s meeting in Varanasi to discuss unification with the KMPP, led by Acharya Kripalani, he was asked why the Party should not merge with the Congress party; he said that it could be six months after the unification with the KMPP, on equal terms. He and Lohia pushed the party forward for a merger with the KMPP. JP, says the author, was reluctant but was persuaded by Mehta and the new entrant D.P. Mishra, the Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh. Narendra Dev was totally opposed, as were Prof Mukut Behari Lal, Madhu Limaye and Madhu Dandavate. The author tells us that later, both JP and Lohia admitted that the socialist movement would have fared better if this unification had not taken place.

The book “Socialist Party: 1947-1952” discusses the foreign policy of the Party in a separate mentions. It mentions Lohia’s Goa satyagraha, the Party’s support to the struggle for democracy in Nepal and its opposition to China’s claim that Tibet as her integral part. The difference of policy on the Sino-American war in Korea has also been highlighted in which Lohia differed from other leaders on supporting the USA. He said that non-alignment from both camps would be advisable. The Party’s general policy was, however, the same and had been developed by Lohia when he had worked in the AICC in the late 1930s, although then, non-alignment was to be between the Fascists and imperialists and now it was between the USA and her allies versus the Sino-Soviet bloc. Lohia said in the new situation, the Party should build the ‘Third Camp in World Affairs’. The Party had started to convene a conference of the Socialist Parties in the countries in Asia and Africa, in association with its counterparts in Indonesia and Burma and such a conference called the Asian Socialist Conference was held in Rangoon in 1953.

The Socialist Party held a special conference in May 1952 at Panchmarhi in Madhya Pradesh where Dr Lohia delivered his presidential address with the title “Doctrinal Foundations of Democratic Socialism.” It was an inspiring message for the Party’s rank and file and reiterated the Party’s three-way strategy of Jail, Spade and Vote. The author quotes from it the main issues to highlight its impact.

All in all, Dr Girja Shankar’s two books have provided a rich account and independent analysis of the politics of the CSP and the Socialist Party. Thereby, these books fill a void in political learning.

The author is one of the country’s leading socialist ideologues.

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