Peshawar And Kanpur Conspiracy Cases

Treason, treachery and conspiracy have always been the catchwords of the British imperialist rulers and their successors — the modern Indian ruling classes, against the Indian communists. Thus the conspiracy cases are nothing but notable episodes in the continuing class struggle. From early ’20s to mid-’30s more than a dozen of conspiracy cases were hatched by the imperialist rulers against the communist movement in India, the Peshawar, Kanpur and Meerut episodes being the most important ones.[1]

The Peshawar Conspiracy Cases (1921-27)

In our earlier section on Party formation, we have stated that an abortive attempt was made to form a CPI in Tashkent with muhajirs in 1920 by MN Roy and other Indian communists abroad. Out of the 200 muhajirs who crossed over to Russia around the year 1920, some 40 to 50 joined the political and military school at Tashkent and later the Communist University for the Toilers of the East in Moscow. From their foreign office, the British intelligence got the information that batches of trained personnel were being sent to India by the CPI in Tashkent. The first batch reached Peshawar on 3 June, 1921. The British police arrested them as “Bolshevik agents” and started the conspiracy cases. From 1921 to 1927 five conspiracy cases were launched against those early communists and national revolutionaries. The distant town of Peshawar was chosen as the venue of the sham trials, so that it would be easy to fabricate news about Russian or Bolshevik ‘destabilisation polities’ and also the accused would not get the benefit of the Jury System.

The first trial under section 121-A of the Indian Penal Code was started with the arrest of Mohammad Akbar, the principal accused and Bahadur, the Tibetan servant of Md. Akbar on 25 September, 1921. Hafizullah Khan, father of Md. Akbar, was also made co-accused in the first Communist Conspiracy case, “The Crown Vs. Md. Akbar and others”. The mockery of a trial took place in the sessions court of JHR Fraser (ICS) who pronounced his judgement on 31 May, 1922, giving 3 years’ rigorous imprisonment (RI) for Md. Akbar and one year’s RI for Bahadur. Hafizullah Khan, who acted as a British agent, was acquitted and released. No documentary evidence or exhibit was necessary to prove the guilt of the accused — to prove that a conspiracy to “overthrow the king-emperor from his sovereign right” existed and to claim that the accused was a member of it was considered enough for punishment under section 121-A, IPC for punishment.

The second conspiracy case was nothing but a continuation of the first one. Mohammad Akbar was again convicted for smuggling out letters from jail and breaking jail discipline. Two other co-accused were Mohammad Hassan of Baluchistan and Ghulam Mehboob of Peshawar for illegal possession of duplicate copies of the said letter. A travesty of trial took place to prove that Md. Akbar was trying to make “contact with his revolutionary colleagues in Chamarkand for the same purpose”. The judgement was passed on 27 April, 1923 : seven years’ RI for Md. Akbar and five years’ RI for the other two co-accused, with three months solitary confinement to each of them.

The third Peshawar conspiracy case, otherwise known as Moscow-Tashkent conspiracy case began on 4 April, 1923 (“The Crown Vs. Akbar Shah and seven others” under section 121-A, IPC) in the sessions court of JHR Fraser. Summarising his judgement, Fraser said that the accused “are not being convicted because they have adopted pure communism, but because they are emissaries of the communism adopted by the Bolsheviks and Roy”. Out of the eight convicts, Akbar Shah and Gauhar Rahaman (Afjal) were given two years’ RI; Feroz-uddin, Abdul Majid, Habib Ahmad, Sultan Mohammad and Rafiq Ahmad one year’s RI. Fida Ali, who became the government approver and Abdul Qadar, the British spy, were acquitted and released.

The next Peshawar conspiracy case was “The Crown Vs. Mohammad Shafiq”, who surrendered to the British police on 10 December, 1923. The verdict was given on 4 April, 1924 : three years’ RI. No further ‘proof’ was necessary to convict Shafiq because he was an ‘active member’ of the ‘conspiracy’ that was already ‘proved’. The sessions judge G Conner summed up his verdict as follows, “Unlike other Indians at the time with the accused, the latter was an active agent of revolutionary party and unlike his companions who left the country, the accused elected to remain behind and continued his revolutionary work. … Before his surrender he visited India as a Bolshevik agent. … He was sent by Roy on a mission to India”. And so he ‘should be sentenced’.

The Fifth Peshawar conspiracy case Began in 1927 against Fazl Illahi Qurban on the same charge of “receiving training in Moscow and Tashkent for the same purpose”. He was sentenced to five years’ RI which was later reduced to three years’ RI on an appeal to higher court.

The fear psychosis about the spread of Bolshevism and class hatred against the communist ideology were the principal reasons for the fabricated conspiracy cases of Peshawar.

Unfortunately, the series of conspiracy cases failed to evoke any response from the nationalists. Only MN Roy wrote an article — “Manufacturing Evidence” — accusing the British government, which was published in the Comintern journal Inprecor.

Note : 1. See for details, The Story Behind Moscow-Tashkent Conspiracy Case by SM Mehdi; The Communist Party of India and Its Formation Abroad by Muzaffar Ahmad, and Peshawar to Meerut (Bengali) by Goutam Chattopa-dhyay.

The Kanpur Communist (Bolshevik) Conspiracy Case

The Peshawar Conspiracy cases failed, to check the spread of communism in India. Communist activities again started in the metropolitan cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and other cities like Kanpur and Lahore. The communist groups in these city areas were involved in organising the workers and educating them with communist ideology and politics. Particularly after the withdrawal of the first non-cooperation movement, the radical sections of the Congress were gradually attracted towards the communist ideology. Sensing the situation, the governor-general of India sent a message on 28 February, 1923 to the Home Secretary in London to the effect that if mass movements started again, a section of non-cooperators and ex-terrorists will join hands with the communists to launch a fresh offensive. So a new conspiracy case was master-minded to smash the budding communist organisation.

It started with the arrests of Shaukat Usmani on 8 May and of Muzaffar Ahmad on 19 May, 1923. Ghulam Hussain was also arrested about the same time. They were arrested under regulation III of State Prisoners Act, 1818 and immediately sent to Peshawar, Lahore and Dacca jails respectively. Muzaffar made a statement to the police about his connections with Nalini Gupta, the linkman of Comintern and Roy with the Indian communist organisers of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. But this information added nothing new to what the government already knew about correspondence between MN Roy and the Indian communists. Nalini Gupta was arrested on 20 December, 1923 and he made a series of statements hi late December, 1923 and early January, 1924. These informations only helped the British Government to corroborate the informations received earlier which would be used in the case proper. After going through all the available materials, a list of 13[2] persons were prepared for magisterial inquiry. But later it was reduced to 8 persons.[3] A complaint under section 121-A, IPC against these eight accused was made before the District Magistrate on 3 March, 1924. Dange was arrested three days before and an warrant was issued on 6 March against Singaravelu Chettiar, who was arrested the same day at Madras. So Usmani, Muzaffar Ahmad, Ghulam Hussain, Nalini Gupta, Dange and Singaravelu were prosecuted. But Ghulam Hussain made a confessional statement and appealed for mercy and wanted to help as an approver in the Peshawar case against Md. Shafiq and he was never produced before the sessions judge for trial. As MN Roy who was then in Germany and RL Sharma who was in Pondichery could not be produced before the court, their names did not figure in the sessions trial. Singaravelu appealed for bail on health ground, and was also not produced in the sessions court. Thus ultimately the case “The Crown Vs. Bolsheviks” under section 121-A IPC was put up against Usmani, Muzaffar Ahmad, SA Dange and Nalini Gupta at the sessions court of that notorious HE Holme (who had given death sentences to 172 peasants in the Chauri-Chaura case) on 22 April, 1924. The appeal by the accused to transfer the case to any metropolitan city was summarily rejected. After four weeks of sham trial, the sessions court gave its verdict: 4 years’ RI to the four accused. Unlike in the Peshawar cases, this time a “Indian Communist Defence Committee” was formed, which organised fund collections and set up the defence lawyers. A defence committee was also formed in London with Charles Ashleigh as its secretary. The Communist Party of France also donated 500 francs for defence of the accused. The appeal to the higher court for reduction of prison term was turned down which was duly criticised in the local newspapers. As Vartaman, published from Kanpur put it, “The charge of conspiracy appeared to be quite baseless.” Aaj (Bena-ras) reported, “The decision of the sessions judge is nothing but an example of miscarriage of justice.” The moderate nationalist leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya also criticised the High Court decision of turning down the appeal for reduction. A militant strike by Kanpur mill workers which faced police firing during the trial was also reported. MN Roy wrote an open letter accusing’the Labour Government of Britain. But in an overall sense the Kanpur Case also failed to evoke a mass protest against this travesty of justice.

Notes :

2. The list of 13 person originally accused in the Kanpur case :
(1) MN Roy, (2) Muzaffar Ahmad, (3) Shaukat Usmani, (4) Ghulam Hussain, (5) SA Dange, (6) Singaravelu, (7) RL Sharma, (8) Nalini Gupta, (9) Shamuddin Hassan, (10) MRS Velayndhun, (11) Doctor Manilal, (12) Sampurnananda, (13) Satyabhakta.

3. The list of 8 persons in the sessions court: (1) MN Roy, (2) Muzaffar Ahmad, (3) SA Dange, (4) Nalini Gupta, (5)Ghulam Hussain, (6) Singaravelu, (7) Shaukat Usmani, (8) RL Sharma.

Confessions and betrayals

A shameful episode related to the Kanpur Conspiracy Case was the betrayals and confessions by communists accused in this case. While in police custody, SA Dange and Nalini Gupta allegedly wrote a number of letters/statements to the British authorities (both singly and jointly). That Nalini Gupta actually became a police agent is generally agreed, but Dange’s role remains controversial. The infamous “Dange letters” were first flashed by the anti-communist paper Current on 7 March, 1964 and immediately became an occassion for mud-sludging between the Party’s two fractions which, within a few months, would become the CPI and the CPI(M). Big shots from both sides visited the Government of India’s national archives in New Delhi to examine the letters. The former fraction led by Dange claimed that these letters had been forged and implanted in the archives by “the splitters” at the behest of Anglo-American imperialists or of the Chinese Communist Party. Their main logic was that the letters filed in the archives bore the signature as Shripat (mark the t) Amrit Dange whereas the correct spelling used by Dange had always been Sripad (mark the d) Amrit Dange. The main counter-argument was that a forger takes double care as regards spelling etc. and moreover, if indeed it was a case of forgery, why did not the British Government or the Indian Government after 1947 ever use the forged letters for denigrating the communist movement and its leader?

In those hot days of 1964 while Muzaffar Ahmad, as a veteran leader of the anti-Dange fraction and one of Dange’s contemporaries, were issuing statements on Dange’s “betrayals” he uttered not a word on his own statements to the police. This was brought to light by others and later Ahmad owned it up in his book Myself And the CPI (published in 1969 by N B A, Calcutta, see p 333). Ahmad wrote that he supplied to the police only those informations which were already known to the latter from other sources. According to him he made the statement on 23 May, 1923, i.e., four days after his arrest, only when a bunch of genuine letters between communists including himself and MN Roy were shown to him by the police and he knew that much was already revealed. This version is, naturally, not beyond controversy but since the revelation came well after the 1964 split, there was much less hue and cry about it compared to the “Dange letters”.

We are not in a position to give the final verdict on the controversies with the help of handwriting-experts and all that. Perhaps that is not so much necessary, too, hi a volume on the political history of the communist movement in our country. No doubt Nalini Gupta betrayed the Party, while Ahmad made confessional statements and Dange at least begged for mercy (see his letter written jointly with Gupta in Text X-2), even if his alleged offer to serve as a police spy[4] (see Text X-3) is taken as a case of forgery. But these black spots certainly do not erase the entire history of their lifelong work as veteran communist leaders, and this despite their other shortcomings and mistakes including Dange’s extreme political deviation hi later years.

Note :

4. Here it must be mentioned that nobody has produced any evidences or even hints that Dange ever served actually as a police agent.

Legal or illegal Party?

An important debate on this question took place during 1924-25. The point was best expressed in the title of an article by MN Roy : “Should the Commuist Party Be a Secret Society ?” This was a reply to an “Open Letter to MN Roy” from Janaki Prasad Bagerhatta, published in the Socialist, 24 September, 1924. In this open letter, Bagerhatta, an AICC member from Ajmer in Rajasthan, proposed that a communist party should be organised openly, which should publish Hindi and Urdu newspapers and issue leaflets to popularise communism and that “a strong party be formed in the Congress … to capture the organization”. The communist party must, he insisted, seek the “help of the Third International”. This Janaki Prasad later turned out to be a police agent, but his letter is of interest to us in so far as it provoked the Socialist and MN Roy to clarify their respective views on these important questions. The response of the Socialist, then under the editorship of KN Joglekar after the arrest of Dange, was rather timid on the first question and confused on the second. Expressing itself categorically and one-sidedly (i.e., without any reference to demands of objective situation or to reprisals by the government) against “any secret and illegal organizations”, the editorial “Reflections” commented :

    “All help could be accepted only on our conditions. … On these terms even if the government themselves were to come forth with an offer we shall not feel the least hesitation to accept it.

    As regards the Third International … there is no special point in looking to it for help. We do not authentically and authoritatively know anything about it and therefore there is no reason to be specially particular about it.”[5]

These words to please the authorities are sometimes sought to be passed off as ‘tactical’ measures, but actually they illustrate a trend towards surrender of principles to avoid official surveillance and repression (the Kanpur convictions hi this case). It was this political trend that manifested itself, during the early as well as later periods of the communist movement, in many cases of personal betrayals in lock-ups and prisons. Anyway, compared to the response of the Socialist, that of Roy was far more consistent and instructive. So we reproduce extracts from his above-mentioned article of Text III-4. On the question of “open or secret” he correctly spells out the general communist guideline : (i) work underground when compelled, (ii) keep up at the same time the fight for legality, (iii) but don’t fall prey to legalism, i.e., legality at any cost. In his attack against legalism, however Roy criticises Singaravelu on a wrong point. The latter’s LKPH did not “call itself communist” (as Roy wrongly asserts); by common consent it had purported to be an open mass party working, inside the Congress and it registered negligible progress not because of any “inordinate zeal for legal existence” but owing to other weaknesses and hindrances. In this article (“Should the Communist Party Be a Secret Society ?”) Roy does not write anything on the question of relations with the Third International, presumably because for him the choice is an obvious affirmative. The question would, however, come up soon enough in the shape of a debate over the name (actually over the outlook — nationalist or inter nationalist) of the party.

Note :

5. Cited by G Adhikari, Vol. II, pp 381-82.