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From Russia with love: How the Bolshevik revolution impacted India’s leaders

Subhash Bose wanted Soviet help. Nehru brought ideas of planning, not the Soviet economic model. MN Roy worked in the Russian foreign office. Periyar spread ideas of social justice.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2017 09:13 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Russian revolution and India,MN Roy,Manabendranath Roy and 100th anniversary of Russian revolution
Born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, who later took on the name MN Roy to escape British intelligence, Roy was an armed revolutionary of Bengal who became a Communist and founded the first communist party of India in Tashkent in 1921. In Russia soon after the revolution, Lenin considered him an authority on India’s colonial question.(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

In a room on the second floor of the College Street Coffee House, the still-sturdy Kolkata institution, the evening light rests on a row of books that line a shelf facing a window. These are by MN Roy, the Indian nationalist revolutionary who turned communist in America and who, on Lenin’s invitation, presented his colonial thesis. Roy differed with the great Soviet leader at the Second Congress of the Comintern (Communist International) in Moscow, 1920.

Lenin believed that Indian communists must work with nationalists, even if the latter were “bourgeois”, so as to strengthen the liberation movement as communists in India then were few in number. Roy felt the main task was to build peasant-and-worker parties and organise a ‘revolution from below’. What decisively links the history of the Russian revolution to the Indian subcontinent is what took place nearly two weeks after the revolution.

On November 20, 1917, the Council of People’s Commissars in Russia appealed to all working classes among the Muslims of the East to rally to Bolshevism to help all oppressed people and secure freedom. This laid the ground for what was eventually to become the crucial Colonial Question that amounted to the Soviet regime unambiguously standing with the peoples of the colonies and giving them material and moral support for their struggles for national independence.

“It had an electrifying effect around the world. And certainly in India,” says political scientist Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, who, together with historian Hari Vasudevan, is among the few Indian experts on the Russian revolution to have accessed the Moscow-based archives of the Comintern in the 1990s. Datta Gupta in his book, Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India: 1919-1943, has laid bare the relationship between Soviet Russia and all shades of India’s revolutionaries and the shifting lines in that relationship.

Roy may have been one of the first Indian revolutionaries in whom a post-revolutionary Russia took keen interest. But he was not the only one, or the last.

MN Roy (fourth from left, back row) with his Soviet comrades in Moscow, 1922 (Photo: Samir Jana)

In his memoirs, Roy recalls Lenin overriding his objection to the passivity of Gandhi’s non-violent tactics and his social conservatism with this one question: “Is Gandhi opposing British imperialism or not? If the answer is ‘yes’, you have to work with him.”

Popular-Front politics, in which differences and conflicts among various social classes are overlooked in favour of joining ranks against a common foe, is a Leninist idea that Stalin built on during World War II while forging an alliance against the Nazis and Fascism. India’s political leaders have adopted it at various times to build a common platform, says Datta Gupta.

Vijay Prashad, academic and editor, Leftword, who is also a CPI(M) member, agrees that many political currents in the country join hands with the communist parties of India at various fora. “We are a large tent movement, not only with many communist and left parties trying to act in unity, but with others outside our movement with whom we have close ties and with whom we are often on the streets. I believe that Ambedkar, Periyar and Nehru, the gamut of socialists and liberals in the Indian national movement, took inspiration from the fact that the October Revolution took place in a peasant society that was like India.”

Nehru in the Soviet Union in 1961. (Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Truck with the mainstream

Broadly three kinds of Indian revolutionaries were motoring down the road to Moscow via Central Asia, between the ’20s and the ’40s; or getting off ships in the capitals of Europe with Moscow as the final destination. Some of them were the Khilafists who were heading towards Turkey to shore up the Caliphate but ended up being recruited by the Soviets in Afghan territory where the latter were active; some were revolution junkies who wanted to ‘see Lenin’ and thought he was going to be a Russian Garibaldi; some were going with the commitment to join The Communist University of the Toilers of the East, a training college for cadres from the colonies, or simply to offer themselves as recruits to a revolutionary state in order to bring back ideas to implement at home.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the rising star of the Congress, visited the Soviet Union in 1927 on the 10th anniversary of the revolution, a time of transition and turmoil that marked the beginning of Stalin’s rise that followed Lenin’s death in 1924. By then Nehru was also a member of the League Against Imperialism, whose roots lay in the Second Congress of the Comintern. In the backdrop of the Great Depression (1929-39), which had the US on its knees, he was impressed with the Soviet Union’s ‘growth phenomenon’; as was Dravidian leader EVR Periyar, who visited the USSR in the ’30s.

“If you want to know the impact of the Russian revolution on Periyar, the proof of that is what Karunanidhi (Karunanidhi draws from the Periyarist political heritage) named his son – Stalin,” says veteran Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar with a smile.

Dravidian leader EVR Periyar visited the USSR in the ’30s drawn to its ideas of class and social justice. (HT Photo)

Aiyar says Nehru returning to India brought the message of the Soviet Union but not its example. (Soviet watchers also point out that after Tagore’s visit to the USSR, two years after Nehru’s, he commended it for its strides in industry and education but issued a word of caution for its lack of “personal freedom”. Tagore’s nephew, Saumyendranath, who was a communist, had facilitated the visit.).

Subhash Chandra Bose, too, adds Datta Gupta, was not opposed to Soviet Russia even though much has been made of his “alliance with fascists. We all know he landed in Germany but few know that his real destination was the Soviet Union. The first embassy he knocked in Kabul where he had escaped to from Calcutta before he landed in Berlin was the Soviet embassy. In fact, even after the Battle of Kohima when Bose tried to enter India with Japanese help, he had plans to make a second attempt to go to Moscow to seek Soviet help. In Berlin he had even told the Nazis that the Indian Legion he commanded would not join the Nazis in their fight against the Soviets”.

Subhash Chandra Bose had told the Nazis that the Indian legion would not be used in their war with the Soviets. (Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The promise of a socialist revolution also influenced the Congress back home. A Congress Socialist ginger group was formed in 1930. Jayaprakash Narayan was an important member of this group. “JP was drawn equally to Gandhi and Marx” and that led to his “confusions”, says Aiyar. “Nehru did not make communism and socialism synonymous. In the Nehruvian economic model there would be a role for the state in promoting heavy industries and infrastructure but industrialists were always going to have a big role,” he adds.

Red on red

In line with the Comintern’s policy to spread communism all across the world by breaking down the imperialist system everywhere, Roy set up the first Communist Party of India in Tashkent in 1921; on Indian soil, it was set up in Kanpur in 1925. In 1923, a Madras journalist and communist, Singaravelu Chettiar, organised the first May Day celebration in India. “This was likely the first deliberative use of the red flag,” says Vijay Prasad.

Communist literature from the Soviet Union continued to enter India through underground channels until 1930 when Roy himself returned to India after having fallen out with Stalin. In the Soviet Union, he had worked in the Russian Foreign office. In India, he was arrested. After jail, he interacted with the Congress and the arch internationalist turned nationalist, and then in another U-turn, Radical Humanist. “This was not a going against Marx but a move towards a new interpretation of him,” says Abdus Samad Gayen, who teaches political science at Presidency University, Kolkata.

Political scientist Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, is among the few Indian experts on the Russian Revolution to have accessed the archives of the Comintern in the 1990s. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

Roy’s case typifies the Indian communists’ dilemma since their brush with Soviet communism, of trying to be consistent on both points – being a ‘good nationalist’ and a ‘good internationalist’ all at once. “The assertion of internationalism by the undivided CPI in 1942 through its opposition to Gandhi’s call for Quit India may have sullied the Indian communists’ public image and given a handle to the Right,” says Hari Vasudevan, “but they felt that the need of the hour was that Britain be joined in the fight against fascism…as by the ’40s, the communists had no clear idea what shape an independent Indian nation-state would take. It was better, in such a scenario, to join the war on the side of the USSR. Right through the ’40s, the communists were putting pressure on the nationalists to move India towards a socialist state.” PC Joshi was for a moderate transformation; BT Ranadive pushed a more radical line.

“The bourgeois national democrats strive for the establishment of a free national state,” Roy had said, “whereas the masses of workers and poor are revolting.” Roy’s thesis that Indian society had “two contradictory forces” and both could not develop together, was borne out in the run-up to India’s independence. Says Vasudevan: “In 1948, both the communist-led people’s movement of Telangana, and the government of independent India wanted the Nizam out but not for the same reason. The communists wanted land re-distribution, end of forced labour, and a re-arranging of the socio-economic order. The army sent to get the Nizam to sign the accession letter was also used to crush the communist movement.”

The Soviet example continued to influence India’s communist governments in West Bengal and Kerala, but differently. “Not just land reforms, what Kerala did was weaken the police apparatus and have the party and local bodies influence the executive apparatus,” adds Vasudevan. “There was a greater diffusion of power in Kerala. The Bengal communists also effected land and panchayat reforms, but they have been more anxious about whether they are following the early [Soviet] doctrine, with the result that not much headway was made in creating an Indian doctrine. ” How much of the colour red has faded in this part of the world? That may just be the question to ask in this month of the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 17:39 IST