Gandhi’s mass appeal among Indian communists
Gandhi’s appeal coupled with his secular ideology has been a convenient recipe for the communists to follow. But during the years of the freedom struggle, his philosophy was criticised by communists.
Every year, a number of budding communists throng the first floor of AK Gopalan Bhavan in New Delhi’s Gole Market to attend master classes by party general secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat, among others. The subjects range from Marxian aesthetics and political economy to India’s freedom struggle, with an emphasis on the role played by MK Gandhi.
Indian communists have always had a unique relationship with India’s greatest mass leader. Gandhi’s appeal coupled with his secular ideology has been a convenient recipe for the communists to follow. But during the years of the freedom struggle, his philosophy was criticised by communists who chose to break ranks with the Indian National Congress to form their own outfit. The Communist Party of India (CPI), founded in 1925, was officially against the Quit India movement.
The Indian communists were in thrall of Russian revolutionary Lenin’s fierce Bolshevik movement and countered Gandhi’s philosophy of non violence, as is evident from Shripad Amrit Dange’s influential 1921 book Gandhi vs Lenin, which argued that while the objective of attaining freedom from imperialism was the same for Lenin and Gandhi, they differed in the “methods to work out the revolution in society”. Witty historians dubbed Gandhism as “Communism minus violence”.
As the Marxists carved out the CPI (Marxist) in 1964, they saw that many of their own doyens were products of Gandhian values. EMS Namboodiripad,a founder member of CPI (M) was a staunch Gandhian — in practise and theory. His protests against Bhagat Singh’s death penalty and support for Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience movement led to his arrest in 1932.
In January 1958, EMS published his seminal work, The Mahatma and the Ism which became a Bible for the Indian Left to evaluate Gandhi’s everlasting contribution. In what could be read as course correction, EMS candidly underlined that early communists denounced the policies and programmes of “bourgeois leaders including Gandhi” but “without participating in these struggles and sharing their bitter experience.”
However, EMS was critical of Gandhism, as he was worried not just about freedom but also India’s social liberation and liberty from the class bondage. Similarly, a young Jyoti Basu — who went on to become the chief minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000 — confronted Jawaharlal Nehru when the latter came to apprise the Indian students’ community in Britain about the freedom struggle in 1938. “Will India be a socialist country?” Basu asked. “First let it be an independent country. Then we can discuss about its social and political structure,” Nehru quipped.
Today’s generation of communists look up to Gandhi. “We tell our comrades how Mahatma Gandhi had the intelligence to identify issues that could rouse the people. It required a genius to make a historic movement out of salt and undertake a Dandi March (1930). Salt is something so essential to everybody’s life and it galvanized an entire movement. He also had a trait that was acceptable to the common people as well as the incumbent Indian capitalist class. He had stayed with Ghanshyam Das Birla [noted industrialist, freedom fighter, who bought the Hindustan Times]. It shows his entire purpose was to unite everybody,” Yechury said.
As the fight between the Leftists and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party has intensified in parts of India such as Kerala or West Bengal, Gandhi’s philosophy is a key tool for the Left. “He was a devout Hindu but espoused secularism. He was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, because he didn’t permit India to turn into a theocratic state just as Muslims succeeded into making Pakistan into an Islamist state. That India became a secular, democratic republic had much to do with how Gandhi shaped the freedom movement,” Yechury said.
It is nearly impossible to find a photo of Gandhi in any of the offices of Left parties around the country. The CPI (M) headquarters, mentioned above, has a huge portrait of Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, an oil painting depicting Lenin, even a life size photo of Harkishan Singh Surjeet. But in their speeches now, it is difficult to miss the mention of Mahatma Gandhi.