No Food, No Shelter

Early Communist Activism in Kolkata

Farooque Chowdhury

Hunger was a regular feature in the life of the early Communist activists in Kolkata, a major city in the British colony of India. While hounded by the British imperial police-surveillance mechanism, the activists very often had no place to have a night’s sleep; and that was, at times, a regular feature of daily life of the activists. “Journey” to jail was a veritable path of the persecuted, but the Communist combatants committed to the cause of the proletariat were undaunted.

Hunger and half-fed condition failed to deter Abdul Halim, one of the early day Communist organisers in India, from revolutionary work, writes Muzaffar Ahmad, another organiser of the Communist movement in those days [1].
The veteran Communist organiser Ahmad’s narration: ‘Many of our workers in the early days of organising the Communist movement had to pass days without finding food. There were persons making propaganda that we’re getting gold from the Bolsheviks in Russia. Had they found our days without food!’

He writes:

‘We came under police surveillance since the very 1922. Our letters and papers used to come through the government postal service. Many of those were seized by police from post offices. Police began to follow me openly since March 1922. It was not only the watchers, lowest ranking agents, of the police department [PD] that kept watch on me. They were also not only assistant sub-inspectors. Sub-inspectors of the Kolkata branch of the Special Branch [SB], the intelligence arm of the PD, started accompanying the watchers. They included Mr Moor-sheedee [mostly spelled as Murshidi]. All contacts with me were on the verge of snapping. I began passing whole days in the home of friend Kutubuddin Ahmad’s home, 7, Moulabee Lane. On a May Day, probably May 17, in 1923, Mr Keed, deputy commissioner of the SB, arrested me from Mr Kutubu-ddin’s home. A few days later I was held captive as a State Prisoner under the Bengal State Prisoners Act of 1818. In 1924, the Kanpur Conspiracy Case was initiated against us. During my [Muzaffar Ahmad] absence from Kolkata due to internment related to the conspiracy case, Halim got acquainted with Shachindra Nath Sanyal and his workers. It was heard that Mr Sanyal distributed one Red Manifesto, which was a mixture of ideas of terrorism and communism. The Book Company at College Square used to import a few Marxist literatures.

Dhaka [then spelled as Dacca] House, 41, Zakaria Street, Kolkata has to be cited if there’s any discussion on the Communists of the 1930s. Halim faced a precarious situation in 1931. One needs a place to sleep at night even if the person goes hungry. Halim and his comrades had no such berth to sleep at night. They faced the situation of passing nights on footpath. The Communist Party faces existential situation when important workers of the party face such a position. In such a situation, three students came forward to help. They were Noor Mohammad and Atoolchandra Chanda from the Kolkata Medical College, and Hatim Ali Khan of the University Law College.

The students lived in three rooms at the right side on level three in the Dhaka House. They rented in the rooms. The students allowed Halim and his comrades to live in the room in the middle of the three. That was room number 25. Noor Mohammad was son of a cloth trader in Shantipur. Atoolchandra Chanda was originally from Bakerganj [now in Bangladesh]. His father was working in Delhi as Superintendent of India Government Press. Hatim Ali Khan was from a well-off family in Mymensingh [now in Bangladesh]. The three students studied Marxism. Among them, Noor Mohammad and Atoolchandra’s extent of Marxist study was wider. They not only spared a room to Halim and his comrades, but also made financial contributions. Medical college students used to get larger amount of money from home. Noor Mohammad and Atoolchandra were involved with other work of the party. Halim and his comrades brought out the weekly Majoor-Chaashee [Workers-Peasants] with the financial help of these students. Noor Mohammad died of Meningitis in 1934. Prior to that, the party had no trace of Hatim Ali Khan. Today [July 5, 1966], only Doctor Atool-chandra Chanda is there. His health is lost. He is the Visiting Surgeon at the Medical College. Many of the party activists, at later times, visited Dr Chanda for medical purpose. But, only a few of them know the way Dr Chanda and Noor Mohammad sheltered the party. The room 25 was not only shelter of Halim and his comrades; that was also undeclared office of the party.

On Communist press in Kolkata, Muzaffar Ahmad writes:

‘It is not wrong if it’s claimed that Abdul Halim was the pioneer of Communist press in Bengal. Mazdoor [Worker], an Urdu weekly, was brought out in the 1920s under the editorship of Mr Kutubuddin Ahmad. It was limited to a few numbers. The first number of Laangal [Plough], a Baanglaa weekly, came out on December 25, 1925. Halim assisted, if not a lot, the weekly. I came back to Kolkata, after my release from jail, on January 2, 1926, and the responsibility of editing and directing the Laangal gradually was shouldered on me. Laangal was rechristened as Ganabaanee [People’s Message]. I was also editing Ganabaanee. With both of the responsibilities, Halim was my closest associate. But, effective drive for Communist journalism was in the 1930s. Abdul Halim’s role was pioneering in the initiative. And, there was not a single newspaper; there were many such: Majoor-Chaashee, Maarxbaadee [Marxist], Maarxpanthee [Marxist], Ganashaktee [People Power], etc’.

The veteran Communist leader writes:

‘On March 20, 1929, we, Philip Sprat, Ajoddhaa Prasad, Shamsul Huda and me, were arrested from a flat at level two at 2/1 European Asylum Lane, Kolkata. We were arrested in connection to the Meerut Conspiracy Case. The flat was the office of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party [WPP]. The office was shifted from there after our arrest. Halim found a room for office after a lot of effort. The new office was at Chowdhury Building, Chittaranjan Avenue. Mr Atool Chandra Gupta, president of the WPP, financially helped Halim in renting in the room. Mr Gupta was a renowned advocate practising at High Court’.

On Abdul Halim, Muzaffar Ahmad writes:

‘As an organiser of the Communist movement Halim was put behind bars repeatedly. He was sent to prison after sentenced by court, as well as detained without trial. Abdul Halim and many Communists were treated as Third Class prisoners, not as political prisoners. Halim was in jail around the later part of the 1930s. He was detained without trial after the beginning of the World War-II. He was near-to-death during that time as he was conducting hunger strike in the Presidency Jail, Kolkata. He could be saved only after transferring him to the Medical College Hospital for better treatment’.

On political education behind bars, Muzaffar Ahmad writes:

‘Armed revolutionaries [abiding by terrorist tact], who were sent to jails or detention camps, sentenced or detained without trial, began looking at reality with a new approach since the beginning of the 1930s. Influence of Idealism among them was receding. They began studying Marxism-Leninism. No doubt, the statement that the prisoners under the Meerut Conspiracy Case issued impacted the armed revolutionaries. Abdul Halim, Saroj Mukherjee, and other comrades also contributed in this development. These comrades were interned repeatedly. The armed revolutionaries in prisons who accepted Communist ideas were organised within Communist Consolidation[2] and with discipline. This was Abdul Halim’s noteworthy contribution. The new-comers were not offered Communist Party membership in jail. Party branches were not also organised there. This approach was followed not only within jails in mainland, but also in the prison in the Andamans. The Communist Consolidation within jails was Abdul Halim’s major contribution in the organisational life of our party’.

Abdul Halim and Saroj Mukherjee, two prominent Communist leaders in Bengal, incarcerated in Alipur Jail in Kolkata had an important role in setting up a Marxist League inside that jail. ‘Abdul Halim and Saroj Mukherjee, on behalf of the Bengal committee of the Communist Party of India, in messages sent through political prisoners deported to the Andamans from Alipur Jail appealed to Communist-minded prisoners in the Cellular Jail, the Andamans, to unite in a Communist Consolidation to study collectively and extend their influence on other political prisoners’[3].

Saroj Mukhopadhay [also Mukherjee] writes about the condition of party work after the Meerut Conspiracy Case:

‘The few workers of the party who were outside of jail lost contact with each other. The central leadership of the party was demolished. Communists in different provinces and areas, especially in Bombay [today Mumbai], Lahore, Kolkata continued work in a condition isolated from each other. Contact between them was very weak. The only contact between them was through the conspiracy case prisoners. During that period, comrade Halim continued work in Kolkata for building up a strong party. But, it was very difficult to continue work of the party. All work had to be done behind surveillance by police. There was no worker, no money. Even, shelter and provision for food was absent. Comrade Halim devoted all his time to recruit workers in this condition. It happened that police arrested him immediately after initiating work following streamlining organisa-tion a bit, and everything was thrown about. During the 1930-32 period, comrade Halim began work with eight activists recruited by him. Before to that he was arrested in 1930 on charge of seditious writing. Statement of prisoners held under the Meerut Conspiracy Case presented the path to people’s revolutionary movement and India’s complete independence, and it influenced many young minds. However, work of organising workers’ and peasants’ movement imbued with teachings of Marxism does not happen spontaneously. Comrade Halim began this work of teaching carefully–discussions with patience and initiating study of Marxist literature. Within two years he organised a number of young activists, and sent them to different industrial areas to organise movement. He went to consult comrade Muzaffar Ahmad in Meerut Jail. Kolkata Committee of the Communist Party was organised. Comrade Muzaffar Ahmad came to Kolkata at the autumn of 1931, on a few days’ of leave from Meerut Jail. Method of work of the Kolkata Committee was specified through discussion with him. The Kolkata Committee issued an appeal–“A united, strong, centralised Communist Party is to be organized all over India. Its work will be conducted secretly; and its members and sympathizers will work to organize movement and organization of workers, peasants, students and youth”. Comrade Halim was selected as general secretary of the party. The Communist Party of China, in a letter, supported the call of the Kolkata Committee. A joint appeal of the Communist Parties of Britain, Germany and China also told about a united Communist Party in India. An all India conference was held secretly in Kolkata in 1933, and that was with the initiative of comrade Abdul Halim. With this conference, the Communist Party of India was again organised; and the central committee of the party was elected. Comrade Halim was elected member of the central committee. Within these four years, 110 members of the party were recruited in Bengal. Comrade Halim organised seeds of the party in different districts of Bengal. Contacts and party centre was organised in the districts of Kolkata including Barrackpur, Howrah, Hoogly, Bardhaman [mostly spelled as Burdawan] and Jashore [now, in Bangladesh, and once spelled as Jessore]. Later, district committees were also organised in these five districts’[4].

Saroj Mukhopadhay writes:

‘While organising party, comrade Halim continued with organising trade unions in areas including Beleghata, Lilua, Metiaburuj, Ghushuree, Rajganj, Barrackpur. Organising unions among labourers working in the railways, tramways, Gardenrich Workshop, jute mills, taxi cabs and buses continued. Comrade Halim always focused on attracting workers to the ideology of socialism; and party cadres created as mere trade union movement was not enough to him. He trained up one whole timer from the railways and jute mills at Beleghata while he was working there. He used to conduct political education classes after organising Young Workers’ League at Metiaburuj. From that League 4-5 good activists came up. He found a few more activists while working at Rajganj. Among them, comrade Faarookee has passed away. During this time he built up a number of laborers as party members. Around 1933, Marxist Students’ League, a students’ organisation, was organised with the direction of comrade Halim. He entrusted four student workers to organise the League. With the initiative of these students, a cultural function was organised at the University Institute in 1933. The purpose of organising this cultural function was to collect money for the Meerut Conspiracy Case Defense Fund. Comrade Halim was the central figure in organising the function. He assembled singers, dancers and musicians for the cultural function’.

Abdul Halim writes about Muzaffar Ahmad and the early days of activism:

‘Slender comrade Muzaffar Ahmad, with his failing health, had no home, no place to reside. He had to go without food most of the days. The same was with mine. At one stage, Muzaffar and I roamed around at daytime, talked to friends at their messes or homes, took meal at food shops, and, as night set in, passed at some convenient place. At this period, we passed many nights in a home at Goomghar Lane near Chadnee. There, Muzaffar once was house tutor in one respectable Muslim family. Muzaffar had close relationship with the family. They had high respect for Muzaffar. The home was always open to us. Our main centre of gathering was the home of Kutubuddin Ahmad. That home was the source of our inspiration for many days. We passed many days in that home. We, in that home, used to stay in a small room. But there was neither bedding nor pillows. We had only dhootee, the long cloth many males wear in this Sub-Continent, and shirt. Kutubuddin Ahmad had a lot of contribution to the labour movement, and to the spread of Marxist, communist literature. It would have been impossible for us had we no sympathy and financial help from him. He was colleague of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a frontline Indian National Congress leader, manager of Urdu periodical Al Helaal. He participated in the labour movements that spontaneously emerged during the Non-cooperation Movement. He was also general secretary of the Khaansaamaa [mostly spelled as Khansama] Union in Kolkata. All khaan-saamaas, orderlies, cooks and waiters brought to standstill hotels in Kolkata including the Grand Hotel and Continental with their strike under the leadership of this union. The strikers dunned the English rulers in Kolkata, which was an appropriate action to audacity of the rulers. My first lesson with labour movement was with that union. Comrade Muzaffar was scheduled to join the 4th Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1922. But he couldn’t, as there was strong restriction on his travelling abroad. Even, he attempted to go in guise of a loader in a ship. But that attempt also failed. I took a job in a sauce factory at Cheengreepotaa [mostly spelled as Chingripota], as I had no provision for food. Doctor T N Roy helped me to get the job. But that job couldn’t be carried on for long. Then, I, a penniless person, was on the streets, moving forward’[5].

But, these penniless persons strode towards organising the exploited, and made advances in their organising activities. “[G]rowing popularity of the Communist Party of India (CPI) alarmed the colonial authorities, which took several measures against Indian communists. The British government’s hostility heightened in the wake of the […] perception that their [communists’] movement was likely to develop and succeed as a strong anti-imperialist movement. […] Colonial authorities and officials expressed their anxiety against the communists. […] [T]he All-India Council of the European Association opined that ‘Communism […] makes use of every weapon to overthrow the Ordered government. [….] The General Secretary of the Association wrote to the Secretary of State for India, on 27 May 1934, [….] for the extension of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1932) in order to enable the government to combat communism.”[6]

Reactions–fear, and resort to suppressive measures–of the class enemies of the Communists evince strength the Communists gathered over time. It also record [1] exploiting interest’s hatred to the Communists, and [2] limitation of political measures of the interests, which induce them to resort to and sharpening of criminal law–a show of weakness, indeed.

The city–Kolkata [then, Calcutta] –was an important area of political activity as a document of the colonial rulers cites:

“Calcutta”, states the 384-page compilation of Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports, etc. including notes by the editor, “was the centre of the activities of Muzaffar Ahmad, Shib Nath Banerji, Kutubuddin and Soumendra Tagore. In one of his many letters to the Indian ‘comrades’ [M N] Roy had said: ‘The main fields of our activities should be Bengal and Bombay”[7].
In an earlier section, the compilation said: “Roy’s correspondence with Muzaffar Ahmad at this period showed that the latter had received and distributed copies of The Vanguard [a journal brought out by M N Roy and others] and of the International Press Correspondence. Roy, writing in July said that the delegation from India to IV Congress of the Communist International was necessary, and enclosed a letter to Chiraranjan Das (son of C R Das) and Subhas Bose (Chief Executive Officer of the Calcutta Corporation), which Muzaffar Ahmad was desired to hand to the addressees”[8].

Role of press/literature had crucial role in political activism, as the imperialist rulers found: “The Vanguard […] exercised a considerable influence on a certain class of Indian newspapers. The ‘Amrita Bazar Patrika’ […] made free use of its sentiments and phraseology; as also did another Calcutta paper, the ‘Atma Sakti’ [Atta Shaktee], directed by a group of Bengal revolutionaries. [….] [Q]uite a crop of new papers with a Communist policy, drawing their inspiration from the ‘Vanguard’ appeared in various parts of India–notably two weeklies in Calcutta: one, a short-lived publication, edited by Nalini Gupta’s recruit of Muzaffar Ahmed, and the other, the ‘Dhumketu’ [Dhoomketoo [Comet]], a Bengal revolutionaries’ organ: the ‘Desher Bani’ [Desher Baanee [Country’s Message]] (Noakhali, Bengal [today in Bangladesh]) […] of which hereafter”[9].

However, the rulers had amazing “findings” also, as the 385-page compilation of weekly IB reports, documents, etc, and with extensive notes by the editor, who was one of the convicts in the Chittagong [now, Chattogram in Bangladesh] Armoury Raid Case, cites an intelligence document, which claims as “List of Soviet Secret Service Agents in India” [dated December 6, 2023]. The hilarious claim “discovered” such “Soviet agent” in Kolkata bearing name of “Fedor Vassilievitch Streltzow” on “21.9.23”, and another one named “L I Shrafuddin Ogli” on “3.12.23”[10]! While a handful of Communists were struggling with hunger, destitution and shelter-less condition, and waging a fight to organise the exploited, the imperial masters “found” imagery figures from the “Soviet” land to “propagate” communism in Kolkata. The sharp eyes of the masters also amazingly found, as a lot of their documents in the two volumes cited above show, a “lot of money” from “Lenin and/or his Bolshevik comrades”, not with these words in the documents, “sent” to their Indian comrades. Specific amounts of money were mentioned in many of the documents! But the masters missed one fact: Human spirit–human spirit for liberation, spirit of the exploited to smash down system of exploitation. This spirit strengthened and widened political and organisational work by a handful of Communist revolutionaries, Muzaffar, Halim, and their comrades, to reach a wide section of the working people in this subcontinent, to challenge the imperial masters, to organise the exploited souls’ courageous raisings for emancipation[10].

1.        “Aamaar paitaalleesh bachharer saathee”, “My comrade for forty-five years”, in Abdul Halim, Nabajeebaner Pathhe, National Book Agency, Kolkata, September 1990. All following citations from Muzaffar Ahmad are from the same source.
2.        Sumit Sarkar writes in Modern India 1885-1947 (Delhi, India, 1998): “In Bengal [...], the real spread of Communism into the districts came with the large-scale conversion of terrorists to Marxism in detention camps and in the Andamans [...] through intense ideological debates and heroic self-searching. From terrorism came [a number of] Bengal Communist leaders [...]”
3.        Satyendra Narayan Majumdar, In Search of a Revolutionary Ideology and Revolutionary Programme, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, India, 1979
4.        “Comrade Abdul Halim”, in Abdul Halim, op. cit. The following citation is also from Saroj Mukhopadhay.
5.        “Nabajeebaner pathe”, in Abdul Halim, op. cit.
6.        Habib Manzer, “British measures against Indian Communists, 1934-37”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 65, 2004
7.        Mahadevaprasad Saha (ed.) Communism in India 1924-1927, [by] Sir David Petrie, Editions Indian, Calcutta, 1958. David Petrie was director of Intelligence Bureau, Government of India in 1924. The original edition, according to the editor of the compilation, of printed 165 copies only, “was exclusively intended for those officers of British Government, in India and abroad, whose duty was to carry on espionage against Communist and revolutionary nationalists in India, countries on her borders and other parts of the world so that planned and systematic measures could be taken to suppress the anti-British movements in India […]” The editor reminds readers: “Strictly speaking David Petrie was not the author of this book. It was compiled by various hands in the Intelligence Bureau […] [a]nd according to the practice of the government departments David Petrie the head of the Intelligence Bureau became its author.” The ruthless intelligence officer was, the editor writes, “intimate friend of Sir Charles Tegart, the notorious Commissioner of Police, Calcutta.” Preface by Petrie in the first edition was dated “1st September 1927”.
8.        ibid.
9.        Subodh Roy (compiled and edited), Communism in India [by] Sir Cecil Kaye, with Unpublished Documents from National Archives of India (1919-1924), Editions Indian, Calcutta, 1971
10.        ibid.


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023