Looking Back

100 Years of the Communist Movement in India


On 17 October 2020, the Indian communist movement looks back on a century of courageous resistance against tyranny, oppression, and exploitation. This was a century of sacrifices by hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries of the Indian communist movement who pledged their lives to the dream of an egalitarian and a truly democratic society. Thousands of cadre were martyred on this path and many more continue to carry forward the dream and the fight in the face of state repression, violence, and infinite efforts at subversion.

Through their self-effacing work, the communists have galvanised hundreds of millions of people into action in order to bring about far-reaching changes in society. They fought sectarian religious strife and caste discrimination, mobilised workers and peasants to fight to advance their rights, and worked to change the consciousness of the people in a progressive direction in order to make society more liveable for all marginalised, exploited, and oppressed sections of people. The communist movement is aware that the exploitation of human beings by human beings can end only with the establishment of a socialist society and its transition towards communism; the fight for this goal continues through the difficult times that humanity is faced with today.

Indian communists are patriotic; their practice is deeply rooted in Indian socio-economic and cultural realities. Yet they see their revolutionary activity in India as an intrinsic part of the international struggle for human liberation and emancipation. They have always been acutely aware that their dream of a communist future is a dream that they share with communist revolutionaries across the world. This means that the Indian communist movement has always been strongly internationalist. In other words, it has stood for the rights of the oppressed people and nations across the world, even when such a stance has not been popular within the country.

Moreover, the Indian communist movement itself was strongly inspired by the October Revolution (1917)–a glorious episode in history that bore fruits not just in the struggle against the Tsarist Empire, but across all oppressed nations. A set of Indian revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow British colonial rule in India reached Tashkent, in what was then the Soviet Union, from various parts of the world. Assisted by MN Roy–an Indian revolutionary who was a founder of the Mexican Communist Party and who was a member of the executive committee of the Communist International–they formed the Communist Party of India on 17 October 1920.

Apart from the émigré Communist Party of India, scattered communist groups were emerging in different parts of India during the early 1920s, led by leaders such as SA Dange in Bombay, Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, M Singaravelu Chettiar in Madras, and Ghulam Husain in Lahore. The activities of the émigré Communist Party of India served to provide theoretical and practical education in Marxism-Leninism to these groups.

The communists who were in touch with MN Roy held an open conference of Indian communists in the city of Kanpur in the present-day state of Uttar Pradesh from 25 to 28 December 1925 and decided to form a Communist Party of India with headquarters in Bombay. This was the first effort on Indian soil to form an all-India communist party and is considered by a section of Indian communists to mark the beginning of the Indian communist movement.

The Early Years
The Indian communists wanted to achieve full independence from British colonial rule and to build a society where working people could be the masters of their own destiny. For them, the example of the Soviet Union was living proof that this was an eminently possible objective. They undertook intense organisational work, which strengthened the trade union movement by the late 1920s in the urban centres. The years 1928 and 1929 saw a wave of working-class strikes in the country, including protracted struggles waged by the textile mill workers of Bombay and the railway workers of Bengal.

With the emergence of communists in the anti-colonial struggle, the Indian National Congress, which was leading the Indian national movement, was forced to adopt a stronger stance against British rule–a departure from the mild resistance it had put up until then. In the Ahmedabad session of the Indian National Congress in 1921, two communists–Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Swami Kumaranand–moved a resolution demanding complete independence from British rule. While the Congress rejected the resolution, that it was raised at the meeting and taken seriously shows that communist ideas had begun to make an impact on the anti-imperialist struggle.

Alarmed by the spread of communist ideas in India and worried about the implication to its empire, the British launched a series of conspiracy cases against the early communists. Between 1921 and 1933, many important communist leaders of that time were arrested and incarcerated. The most prominent of these cases was the Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929-1933). Though the case was launched to suppress the communist movement, it provided an excellent platform for the communists to propagate Marxist ideology. They made use of the opportunity by spiritedly explaining and defending Marxism in the court room, helped along by the great interest that these proceedings generated among the Indian public. Twenty-seven of the thirty-three accused were convicted and sentenced to transportation or imprisonment. In 1934, the British government outlawed the Communist Party and all of its affiliated organisations, making its membership a criminal offence. The communists continued their revolutionary activity clandestinely and continued to grow the Party's reach and membership.

The success of the Soviet Union–even in the midst of the Great Depression, which ravaged the capitalist world–attracted numerous people across the world to socialism and to Marxism. India was no exception. Though the Communist Party was banned, communists continued to work in various organisations that were part of the Indian national movement, including the Indian National Congress. They carried out their party activities clandestinely and recruited many young people into the Communist Party. Many of those recruited into the communist movement in this fashion later became prominent leaders. Using these various fora, one of which was the Congress Socialist Party or CSP (a left bloc within the Indian National Congress), communists plunged headlong into mobilising vast sections of people into various mass and class organisations of peasants, workers, students, and writers.

The Growth of Mass and Class Organisations
As they matured in the movement, the communists recognized the importance of the alliance of the working class and peasantry in order to achieve complete independence. They understood the role that revolutionary workers can play in paralysing the machinery of the colonial administration, as well as transport and communication. As a result of communist activity, a wave of working-class strikes involving 606,000 workers took place across India in 1937.

Apart from workers, the communists identified the role that students, young people, and intellectuals could play in the national movement and sought to mobilise them behind the revolutionary cause.

Most importantly, the communists came to realise that in India, where more than 80% of the population lived in agrarian societies, national liberation would truly be possible only when the peasantry was mobilised on a large scale. Thus, the communist movement–which in its early years had mainly mobilised in urban centres–started growing in rural India as well.

With this understanding, the communists formed a number of mass organisations in 1936: the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS or All India Peasant Union), the All India Students' Federation, and the Progressive Writers' Association, as well as the Indian People's Theatre Association in 1943. The first organisation of agricultural workers was also started by the communists. These mass organisations helped channel the quest of various sections of people seeking justice and rights towards a revolutionary consciousness.

As the communist movement entered rural India, it had to grapple with the entrenched structure of Indian feudalism–in particular with the amalgam of caste and class. Rural India was rife with the exploitation of peasants by the landlord class, moneylenders, and government officials. After the extraction of rent and debt by moneylenders, the peasant who grew the food hardly had anything left with which to feed his family. Pushed into a cycle of debt, inevitably a large section of the peasantry lost their lands, becoming tenants. Even worse was the situation of the landless workers, mainly belonging to untouchable castes, who were forced–through the coercion of physical force and societal customs–to provide free labour and to lead a socially sanctioned subhuman existence. The first among the many issues that communists took up in the villages was that of untouchability, which they connected with other issues such as low wages and conditions of forced labour.

Under the leadership of communists, the peasant movement gathered strength. The membership of the communist-led All India Kisan Sabha rose from 600,000 in May 1938 to 800,000 in April 1939. The peasant movement had a range of demands, which included abolishing landlordism and granting land ownership to cultivating peasants, ending forced labour and illegal exactions from tenant farmers by landlords, redistributing land to landless peasants, radically changing the land tax system, and better prices for crops.

While the communists mobilised the peasantry, the leadership of the Congress was openly aligned with the landlords and rulers in most places. The landlord class, along with Indian industrialists, were two pillars of support for the Congress. As a result, tensions rose between the communists and the right-wing sections of the Congress. The provincial governments led by the Congress were openly supportive of landlords and capitalists. Under pressure from the right-wing of the Congress, the CSP leadership expelled the communists. Following this, as EMS Namboodiripad, a key communist thinker and the first Chief Minister of the state of Kerala, recalls, 'some of the state, district and local units of the CSP (including the entire membership of the CSP in Kerala) transformed themselves in their entirety from the CSP to the CPI.'

The Second World War
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Britain made India a participant in the war without consulting the representatives of the Indian people. The war caused the Indian people immense hardship as the price of essential goods rose sharply. The CPI staunchly opposed the war and organised mass protests. The British government began mass arrests; by May 1941, almost the entire CPI leadership was in jail.

But the character of the war changed after Nazi Germany launched its attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 from an inter-imperialist war to an all-people's war against fascism. Proletarian internationalism now called upon the communist parties of all countries 'to recognize that Hitler-fascism was the main enemy and that war waged by the USSR in alliance with Britain and America was a war which had to be won by all the people in the interests of defending the base of the world revolution' ('Resolution of the Polit Bureau of the CPI, despatched to all party members under the cover of party letter no. 56 dated 15 December 1941').

The Congress was in negotiations with the British, who offered concessions–including the transfer of power–but only after the war. The negotiations broke down. The threat of a Japanese invasion loomed large as the Japanese forces advanced towards India and conquered the British-occupied territories of Singapore, Burma, Malaya, and the Andaman Islands. Nevertheless, the Congress, which had long campaigned against fascism, now launched the Quit India struggle, demanding that the colonial rulers must 'quit India', to pressure the British to quickly seek a compromise.

The communists opposed the Quit India Resolution of the All India Congress Committee. Faced with the global advance of fascist powers, they considered the call to be inappropriate for the time and were concerned that any weakening of the Allies would weaken the anti-fascist war effort. But the people were impatient to discard the yolk of colonialism, and the communists' stance went against the popular feeling in the country at the time.

After India won independence, this stance was reviewed by the Communist Party, which concluded that it had been a serious mistake to go against the popular mood during the Quit India movement. While supporting the people's war in the international sphere, the communists ought to have backed the Indian people's just demand that the British colonialists 'quit India', the CPI concluded. Though the Congress issued the call for the British to 'quit India', most of its leaders were arrested immediately, and there was no direction or preparation from the part of the Congress leadership regarding how to carry forward the struggle when faced with large-scale repression. Despite their opposition to the call, the communists campaigned for the release of the jailed Congress leaders and demanded the establishment of a national unity government.

The ban of the Communist Party that had been imposed in 1934 was lifted in July 1942 and the communists were released from jail. Amidst the war, the horrific Bengal Famine of 1943-1944 caused the deaths of more than three million people in Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, and Assam. As economist Utsa Patnaik has pointed out, this was the result of a deliberate policy by the British to engineer profit-inflation 'to raise resources from the Indian population by curtailing mass consumption in order to finance the Allies' war in South Asia with Japan'. The communists actively took part in procuring and distributing essential commodities. The Party campaigned to build a movement against sections of merchants and landlords who hoarded food grains and other essential commodities, and to expose the anti-people character of the British rulers who were favouring such exploiters. Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti ('Women's Self Defence Committee') was formed to save young women from human traffickers. Volunteers and medical teams were mobilised and sent for relief work. As a result of such tireless work–despite taking an unpopular stand on the war–the communists retained their independent strength, and mass support for the Party significantly increased.

The Post-War Upsurge
The post-war period saw an upsurge of mass struggles in India, many of which were led by the Communist Party. The strength that the Communist Party built in many regions during the war was now mobilised into mass actions.

A tide of working-class struggles rose up in the country in response to the retrenchment of five to seven million workers and the rising cost of living as well as in response to calls to strengthen the struggle for national independence. Among the massive working-class actions were strikes of post office, telegraph, and railway workers in 1946.

The mutiny of the ratings (junior officers) of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) in February 1946 was a landmark event. The naval ratings of Bombay who went on strike hoisted the red flag along with flags of other parties in the national movement. They took up arms and arrested their superior officers. The CPI fully supported the uprising and called for a general strike on 22 February 1946. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, merchants closed their establishments, and students boycotted classes. Ultimately, the rebelling naval ratings surrendered on 23 February; however, the popular support that they garnered as a result of the communist-led campaign prevented their total annihilation.

Under the leadership of communists during this period, various parts of India saw massive mobilisations of peasants against the exploitation of landlords. Everywhere, the CPI demanded the abolition of various forms of economic and social oppression that have burdened the Indian villages for centuries. In some places, the mobilisations took the form of armed revolts led by the communists; there were massive mobilisations of peasant men and women that ran from Andhra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra to Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Kashmir. These mobilisations shook the ruling classes, which used extreme violence to suppress them. Ultimately, the peasants won many of the rights they had been fighting for, further strengthening the communist movement.

The executive President rather than the parliamentary system that India adopted. The refusal of the Travancore rulers to concede to the demand for a government that would be accountable to an elected legislature and the move to impose the 'American model' spurred action by the working class led by the Communist Party. There were furious battles between the workers and the armed police. The police shot and killed several hundred workers from 24 October to 27 October. In less than a year, the prime minister had to leave Travancore in ignominy, and the immediate political demand of a democratic government became a reality with Travancore becoming a part of India. The struggle also set in motion the process for the formation of the united linguistic state of Kerala, by the merger of the Malayalam-speaking regions: the former princely states of Travancore and Cochin, and the Malabar district of the Madras presidency which was under direct British rule.

Differences in the Communist Movement
By the time of Indian independence on 15 August 1947, a number of questions had emerged before the communist movement. The colonial power that the communists had vehemently fought against was gone. Now Indians ruled the country. But what was the nature of the new state and who were the new rulers? Was the new Indian state a puppet state of a colonial power? Or was it an independent one, rooted in the support of Indian ruling classes? Who were the Indian ruling classes in this new context? What should be the nature of engagement of the communist parties with the new state and the ruling classes? Should the Communist Party engage and ally with the new rulers? Or should it wage an armed struggle for the overthrow of the state? Should it take the 'Russian path' or the 'Chinese path'? Or was there an Indian way? These were the major questions that brewed within the communist movement and which subsequently led to the formation of different strands within the movement.

The differences intensified from the mid-1950s onwards. The immediate question was how to analyse the policies of the post-independence Indian government, headed by Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress. The government was pursuing a relatively independent foreign policy; it had set in motion the process of economic planning; and the Congress even claimed that its aim was to establish a socialistic pattern of society. A section of the CPI felt that the communists should work with the left faction within the Congress, represented at the time by Jawaharlal Nehru, arguing that this faction represented the national bourgeoisie and that it stood in opposition to imperialism and feudalism.

These debates ultimately led to the Communist Party of India splitting into two in 1964. The faction that opposed the path of cooperating with the Congress formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M); the other faction retained the name Communist Party of India (CPI).

In 1969, convinced of the necessity of armed struggle, other communists formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML).

[Tricontinental, September 1, 2020]

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020