The National Political Scene

After Chauri Chaura the two streams of Congress activities — one of swarajists in legislatures and the other of constructive workers and satyagrahis mainly in villages — dragged monotonously on but the best revolutionary elements were being attracted towards the ideals of socialism, the new Soviet state and, at home, the organised working class movement with its great revolutionary potential. Some of these elements joined the red flag TU movement or the CPI, while some others took to a new higher stage of patriotic-terrorist activities. This latter trend was best represented by the HRA (Hindustan Republican Army) founded in October 1924 with activities in Punjab, UP and Bihar and Surya Sen’s revolutionary group in Bengal which conducted the famous Chittagong armoury raid in April 1930.

From the very outset the HRA, founded by Sachin Sanyal and Jogesh Chandra Chatterji in Kanpur, carried distinct marks of a new ideology. Its inaugural meeting decided to “preach social revolutionary and communistic principles”. Before long it also declared its resolve to “start labour and peasant organizations” and to work for “an organised and armed revolution.”[1] Its main initial activities, however, were raising funds through dacoities. One such incident – the famous Kakori Train hold up of August 1925 — led to the arrest of many, but newcomers like Ajoy Ghosh, a Bengali youth of Kanpur who would later became the General Secretary of CPI, took lessons from this and in co-operation with the 21 year old revolutionary intellectual Bhagat Singh of Lahore the HRA was reconstituted as HSRA in September 1921. The new “S” of course, stood for socialist, for socialism was now officially accepted as the goal.

The story of HRA-HSRA, and particularly of its leading spirit Bhagat Singh, is a story of an incomplete transition from petty bourgeois revolutionism to communist revolutionary mass action. The young Bhagat (born 1907) combined in himself a great patriotic zeal for revolutionary action, particularly mass action (that was why he became a founder member and first Secretary of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) in Punjab in 1926) with a great interest in revolutionary theory. A rationalist and atheist (this was quite remarkable in those days of intense religiosity of revolutionary patriots), he made a comparative study of the revolutionary theories of Russia, Ireland and Italy and took little tune in making the ultimate choice in favour of Marxism. Whether in jail or out of it, he successfully inspired his comrades to study, think and discuss. To make the broad masses politically conscious, he used to deliver instructive lectures with the help of magic lanterns.

Even as Bhagat Singh and his dose associates were advancing towards the path of militant mass struggles, the still waters of nationalist politics began to ply. The immediate provocation came from a government announcement in November 1927 that an all-white commission will be sent to India to recommend whether the country was ripe for further constitutional progress and, if yes, on what lines. The non-inclusion of any Indian in this commission headed by Mr. Simon was widely regarded as a national insult and it was boycotted by the Congress, the Muslim League led by Jinnah, the Hindu Mahasabha and many others. When the Simon Commission landed in Bombay on 3 February 1928, massive black-flag demonstrations, mammoth rallies and numerous other forms of protest were organised everywhere in India and all major cities and towns observed complete hartal. “Go back Simon” became the angry slogan of every Indian, and the protests raged with increasing force and numerous creative forms[2] throughout the year and into the next. The repressive machinery of the state was set in full motion. While leading a protest rally at Lahore, the veteran freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai was mercilessly beaten up by the police and after 16 days he succumbed to the injuries on November 17, 1928. This dastardly murder of Sher-e-Punjab compelled Bhagat Singh and his comrades Chandrasekhar Azad and Rajguru to take up the pistol once again to mete out capital punishment to Saunders, a police official responsible for the murderous attack on Lajpat Rai. This was on 17 December, 1928. A HSRA poster declared : “… we regret to have had to kill a person, but he was part and parcel of that inhuman and unjust order which has to be destroyed.”[3]

Notes :

1. See India’s Struggle For Independence 1857-1947. Ed. by Bipan Chandra, Penguin Books (1989); p 254

2. For Example, in Lucknow where some loyalist elements organised a reception for members of the Simon Commission and the police made it difficult to approach the place with black flags, kites and balloons sporting the slogan “Go Back Simon” were flown to carry the message through. When the Commission travelled by train from Lotvaia to Poona, some young men boarded a truck, drove just beside the compartment carrying the members and waved black flags at them all along the journey.

3. See India’s Struggle For Independence, 1857-1947, op. cit, p 249

After the successful action, the HSRA struck again in a totally different way. On 8 April 1929 Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt hurled small, relatively harmless bombs and bunches of leaflets from visitors’ gallery in the Central Legislative Assembly to record their protest against the passage of the notorious Public Safety Bill[4] and Trade Disputes Act. As planned, they courted arrest so as to use the trial courts for propagating their new politics of revolution by the masses. Shortly, Sukdev, Rajguru and many others were also arrested and conspiracy cases launched against them. With death-defying patriotic songs, slogans like “Down with Imperialism”, “Inquilab Zindabad”, “Long Live the Proletariat” and with fervent political speeches, the accused enthralled and roused the entire nation. As expected Bhagat Singh, Sukdev and Rajguru was sentenced to death and others to long terms of imprisonment.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum two important events were taking place. One was the famous Bardoli Satyagraha in Surat District of Gujarat against a 22% hike in land revenue. Based on some six years of constructive work and led by Vallabbhai Patel, a very talented campaigner and organiser who acquired the title ‘Sardar’ from the people of the area, the satyagraha was enormously successful in uniting the land holding patidars or peasants and also in mobilising the tribal dalit-serfs known as kaliparaj (meaning the black people) who were misled into believing that the satyagraha also served their interest. The movement started in early 1928, and soon became a national issue drawing support from almost every quarter. Late in the year the government beat a retreat and instituted an enquiry committee which reduced the hike in land revenue to 6.03%. As Sumit Sarkar informs us, one of the reasons why the government thought it wise not to resort to repression was that the communists, who were then leading the historic Bombay textile strike, would then use it to call a successful general strike.[5]

The other important happening was the All-parties Conference which met in February, May and August 1928 to formulate a scheme of constitutional reforms that would be acceptable to all Indians. This exercise was in response to a taunting challenge thrown up by the Secretary of State Birkenhead that the quarrelling Indians were incapable of drafting such a document unitedly. The AITUC, the CPI and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party (Bombay) were also invited to the meetings as representatives of labour (see Text VI-21 for the WPP’s open letter to the conference). The meetings culminated in the “Nehru Report” (named after Motilal Nehru), i.e., a scheme which opted for Dominion Status along with a full set of constitutional provisions. This was strongly denounced by all leftist elements within and without the Congress. In November 1928 S Srinivasa Iyengar (who had just returned from the Soviet Union), Jawaharlal Nehru and SC Bose set up the “Independence For India League” which aimed at “complete independence” and “a socialist revision of the economic structure of society”. At the Calcutta session held the next month, the junior Nehru and SC Bose supported by communist delegates[6] and others pressed for Puma Swaraj or complete independence as opposed to the Gandh-i-Motilal proposal of dominion status. After much debate the latter proposal was carried, but simultaneously it was decided that if the government failed to adopt a constitution based on dominion status by the end of 1929, the Congress would go a step further by adopting complete independence as its goal and launching a civil disobedience movement to attain that goal. A memorable event of this Calcutta session was the visit of a 20,000 strong (50,000 according to Pattavi Sitaramaiah, the official historian of the Congress) workers’ contingent led by communist trade union leaders. While the workers were proceeding to the venue of the session, SC Bose arrived there on horseback at the head of a Congress volunteer force and tried to disperse them. But the workers reached their destination, intervened in the conference and, supported by the leaders like Jawaharlal, declared the resolve for Puma Swaraj before leaving the pandal.

Notes :

4. The Public Safety Bill was basically an anti-communist measure designed to enable the government to summarily deport “undesirable” and “subversive” foreigners like Philip Spratt who were organising the Indian labour. It was opposed by all sections of nationalists including men like MM Malaviya and Motilal Nehru. The other Act aimed at curbing militant trade unionism.

5. See Modern India, op.cH, p 278 for the Bombay governor’s letter to the Secretary of State, where the former expressed such apprehensions on the basis of police reports.

6. Communist presence in Congress sessions and Congress Committees went on increasing till the UF policy was abandoned in 1929.

Even as the stage was thus being set in India for a new round of confrontation with British imperialism, at international level the “League Against Imperialism” was founded at Brussels in February 1927. The League was a communist-sponsored but broad-based platform that united the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America on the one hand and the militant workers’ movements in the imperialist countries on the other. Jawaharlal Nehru attended the Brussels Congress of the League as the representative of the Indian National Congress and was elected to its Presidium and also to the Executive; on his advice the INC became an “associate member” of the League (that is, committing itself to support only those decisions and programmes of the League as it thought proper). When Nehru returned to India in late 1927 after a visit to Soviet Union, he began to preach his youthful conviction in socialism on almost every occasion, particularly before the youth and the working class. With his great oratorial power he definitely contributed a lot in creating a general curiosity in and sympathy for socialist ideals in the new generation.

Two major vehicles of the leftward turn that the Indian polity was going to take in this period were a new youth movement and a surge in working class movement. The latter demands separate discussion; as regards the former, mention has already been made of the pioneering role played by Bhagat Singh’s NBS. But it was in course of the “Go Back Simon” agitation that a new, pro-people youth movement inspired by socialist ideals spread in Punjab Bengal, Bombay and elsewhere. Many future leaders of the CPI and the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) emerged from these youth organisation — for instance, Sohan Singh Josh and Abdul Mazid (Punjab), Indulal Yagnik and Yusuf J Meherally (Bombay) and so on.

Role of CPI in national politics

The CPI intervened in the national political scene both by means of independent political initiatives and through UF work within the Congress. Of the former there were three main vehicles. First, it played a very active role in the trade union movement, developed a strong communist faction within the AITUC and thus built up the Party’s independent mass base. Particularly noteworthy in this connection is the great six-month-long Bombay Textile strike of 1928 which, along with anti-Simon agitation, marked the beginning of the crucial turnaround from the six-year-lull in mass movements to the next prolonged high tide (1930-34) and thereby earned for the proletariat and its party a special place in the freedom movement. Second, it founded Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties (WPPs) in different provinces to mobilise and train all fighting elements from within and without the Congress and to take independent political initiatives. Third, through an unbroken series of articles, notes etc. published in a number of English as well as Indian language magazines and also through numerous leaflets, pamphlets and manifestoes the CPI and the WPPs put forward their distinct political positions, calls etc. on every important occasion — be it a Congress or AITUC session, an act of repression or shrewd manoeuvre on the part of the British government, struggles launched by any section of society, the death of a national or international leader, a communal riot or other mishap – what not. These propaganda materials, a selection of which we reproduce in Texts VI-17 to VI-21, served to educate the people about an alternative path of freedom movement vis-a-vis the Congress path of passive resistance.

As regards UF work, communists made very effective use of the overall left shift in Indian politics (e.g., the left current within the nationalist movement as represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, the emergence of youth leagues and working class militancy, the activities of Bhagat Singh and his associates, etc.) to augment communist presence and develop left blocs at all levels of the Congress. Communists became members in the AICC and many provincial committees (e.g., in 1927 three members of the WPP of Bengal were elected to the BPCC), most notably in Bombay. There are numerous instances of a close cooperation between communists and the left-wing Congressmen against the Congress right-wing. Thus in the Madras session of the Congress (December 1927), the resolution declaring complete independence as the accredited goal of the Congress was moved in the subjects committee by KN Joglekar seconded by Jawaharlal arid was passed by an overwhelming majority. In the open session the same resolution was passed unanimously, this time moved by Jawaharlal and seconded by Joglekar. Just after the session was over, a “Republican Congress” was held in the same pandal by the left-leaning delegates, Jawaharlal was elected President and Muzaffar Ahmad one of the three secretaries. Ahmad was elected because he along with Philip Spratt[7] authored and published, on behalf of the WPP of Bengal, the “Manifesto of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party to the Indian National Congress, Madras, 1927” (Text VI-20) which was distributed at the Madras session and immensely appreciated by left-leaning Congressmen with republican ideas. As the facsimile of the its front cover shows, the Manifesto answered the most urgent questions facing the national movement at the time by cogently formulating a set of positive slogans (particularly that of a constituent assembly based on universal suffrage) and means of struggle (see Appendix to Text VI).

This radicalisation of a section of the Congress, however superficial, was denounced by the right wing headed by Gandhi, who rejected the resolution of complete independence passed at the Madras session as “hastily conceived and thoughtlessly passed” and wrote to Jawaharlal : “you are moving too fast.”[8] The fight between the two sections continued into the Calcutta session held after a year, where the communist delegates supported Jawaharlal and SC Bose in the latters’ attempt to make the Congress adhere to the Madras resolution of complete independence. But whereas in Madras Gandhi was absent, in Calcutta he led the right wing and, as seen earlier, a compromise formula was arrived at which took the Congress back to its normal Gandhian track.


7. George Allison, Philip Spratt, Fazl Elahi (alias Qurban) and Benjamin F Bradley were sent to India during 1926-27 by CPGB for helping the Indian communists. Among them, Spratt and Bradley could avoid arrest for a longer period and played a more effective role.

8. For details, see G Adhikari, Vol. IIIC, p 432-33