revolutionaries and the Congress | NewsClick
Since 2014, the Indian National Congress has been a broken house. New congressman Kanhaiya Kumar, who once said that the party is a “sinking ship” that must be “saved” at all costs, confirmed this. Kanhaiya’s membership in Congress sparked debates in India about the viability of communists in the party. Seemingly upset, former cabinet minister Manish Tiwari pointed to an obscure book, Communists in Congress, by Mohan Kumaramanglam, a much older Communist recruit to Congress. Other commentators wrote about the big old party’s left turn and argued that it was the natural habitat of revolutionaries.
They pointed to the pre-independence Congress Socialist Party (CSP) operating in Congress as a formidable left-wing pole and the communists’ close cooperation with leaders such as Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru.
True as their claims are, they often blur the lines between the strategic and the tactical. Strategically, the revolutionaries and the communists had become impregnated with a much more radical line which distinguished them from the Congress. While Congress took about five decades to adopt “total independence” or Poorna swaraj as its main political program, communists and revolutionaries have embraced it since their inception. Tactically speaking, the latter often associated themselves with the Congress party on a common basis anti-colonial program. After Dutt-Bradley’s thesis (1936), the Communist Party of India adopted the line of an “Anti-Imperialist People’s Front” with Congress against British imperialism. It was not a blanket endorsement of the entire Congress, but a clear distinction between “right” and “left” factions within it, which came to the fore when the CSP was born in 1934. The document argued for close cooperation with the latter and categorically opposed to the former. International developments such as the rise of European fascism, the threat it posed to the global socialist movement, and the anti-colonial movement also played a vital role in shaping the Dutt-Bradley thesis.
Another important phenomenon that apologists for Congress, old and new, tend not to point out is the issue of “internal and external drivers” within it during the colonial period. Congress began as a mundane affair of liberal elites. His best and most enduring contribution was the economic critique of British colonial rule. At the same time, its most radical demands remained the Indianisation of the civil service, with Congress believing that the “home charges”, which mainly included the repatriation of salaries and monetary benefits for British civil servants, were the biggest parasite clinging to public service. Indian economy.
Then MK Gandhi came to the fortuitous conjuncture of Tilak’s death and the First World War. He led the mass movement in the form of the Non-Cooperation Movement, but at the same time he abandoned it. At the same time, the revolutionaries were ruthless in their criticism of Gandhi. Sohan Singh Josh, a contemporary of Bhagat Singh and later a life member of the Communist Party of India, records in his book, My Encounters with Bhagat Singh and Other Early Revolutionaries, that when Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev visited his house in Lahore after killing Saunders, they inquired about reactions in Congress. Josh admitted that “young people are happy”, but “Gandhi people are not”. Bhagat Singh retorted, ‘we knew it in advance…Gandhi stabbed the nation in the back by withdrawing the non-cooperation movement. People are still under the cloud of frustration and demoralization.”
Be that as it may, the revolutionaries and the communists stayed away from the Congress. This is what made their external impact crucial and possible. After the non-cooperation movement, there was an explosion of trade unionism and socialist politics in the mid-1920s. For the first time, socialism began to develop as a political factor in India and its ideas began to penetrate the minds of young people. The Kanpur Conspiracy (1924) trial against the Communists showed the vigilance of imperialism in stamping out the first signs of revolutionary working class politics. The growth of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party (WPP), an alternative front of the Communists, took place in tandem with the labor movement. The colossal strike movement of 1928 led to the loss of 31,647,000 working days, more than during the previous five years combined. The labor movement exerted immense pressure on the Congress party from without.
Prior to the crucial Calcutta Congress session (1928), where it emerged as a house sharply divided between those who wanted full independence and those content with dominion status (led by Gandhi), 50,000 mill workers waving the flag red marched to the pavilion where the session was about to begin. They held the square for two hours and demanded that the Congress party accept complete independence as a goal. (Nehru, who chaired the Dec. 27 Socialist Youth Congress at which communism was declared “the only way out,” addressed them.)
Exercised and alarmed, British imperialism has put almost every prominent working class leader behind bars. It became known as the Meerut Conspiracy Case, which lasted a record four years. It completely decapitated the labor movement in India, but the impact of it all was huge. On the eve of the next session of the Lahore Congress (1929), where Gandhi was elected president, he skillfully resigned and appointed the young Nehru to this post. Until the Madras Congress session (1927), Gandhi had opposed a resolution for complete independence and even called it “hastily devised and thoughtlessly adopted”.
When the session of Congress opened in Lahore, Nehru proudly declared himself “a socialist and a republican”. Speaking of socialism, he asserted that “India will also have to follow this path if it seeks to end its poverty and inequality”. The Nehru Report compiled by his father Motilal Nehru, had dominion status as a stated goal. It was declared null and void, and Poorna swaraj was adopted.
Another significant development that has received little attention from even left-wing historians is that at midnight before the year 1930, India’s independence flag was unfurled. The first flag was red, white and green, with red symbolizing the seal of socialism. Later, this red was replaced by saffron. As the nation celebrated Independence Day on January 26, 1930, protesters in Bombay [now Mumbai] made an effort to hoist the red flag alongside the tricolor flag. Members of Congress on the left rejoiced while the right was horrified. Nehru clarified that there is not and should not be a rivalry between the tricolor and the workers’ red flag. He said he honors and respects the red flag because it represents the blood and suffering of workers.
Another main external driver that pushed the Congress in progressive directions was the revolutionary movement led by Bhagat Singh and his comrades. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), of which Bhagat Singh was a leader, led the civil disobedience movement in Punjab, a province where Congress had minimal traction. Although the NBS helped the Congress in its recruitment campaign, the young leaders of the Sabha warned the Congress leaders to “stay out of the way of the young men”. Another central distinction between the NBS revolutionaries and the Congress was the concessions to the Indian bourgeoisie.
As Gandhi’s civil disobedience program responded to demands from the Indian business class, such as the devaluation of the rupee to help Indian exporters and reserve coastal traffic for Indian shipping, the NBS urged young people to visit the villages and explain the “new revolution”. The villagers understood then that the new revolution would not simply mean a change of leaders, but a revolution “of the people and by the people”. In apparent defiance of bourgeois demands, the manifesto issued by the Sabha in 1929 declared that “swaraj was for 98% of the people”.
The Hindu Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) of Bhagat Singh had adopted the abolition of landed property, the liquidation of the indebtedness of the peasants, the nationalization of land and industries, housing, social security and universal education . The full force of these ideas was felt after the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. The Congress, especially Gandhi, was blamed for its failure to save Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. The seething among the youngsters was evident when Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel received black flags upon their arrival in Karachi for the Congress session.
Historians have gravely erred in claiming that the Karachi Congress resolution, which included progressive demands such as nationalization of critical industries, social protection for workers, trade union rights, etc., was Gandhi’s concession to the left in Congress, mainly Nehru. In reality, it was the ghost of Bhagat Singh that loomed large in the session. The hanging took place on March 23, 1931, and the session lasted from March 26 to 31. The Congress had no choice but to welcome Bhagat Singh’s program, otherwise there would not have been a fig leaf to hide their shame for not saving Bhagat Singh and his comrades from the gallows.
In summary, revolutionaries, communists and socialists pushed the Congress party in radical and progressive directions. Congress exerted little pressure in the other direction because it lacked potential driving forces within it.
Shubham Sharma and Ajay Saharan are respectively Research Fellows in the Department of World History at the University of Cambridge and the Department of Economics at the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research. Opinions are personal.