People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 33

August 19, 2007

60 Years Of Our Independence And The Left: Some Thoughts


Jyoti Basu



THE occasion of 60th anniversary of India’s independence from the shackles of British colonial subjugation is of special significance particularly to people like us who have lived through and participated in our great national liberation movement with a firm conviction to establish a just and equitable society after the end of the foreign rule. The present celebration in its own fashion provides us with an opportunity to recapture various facets of the anti-colonial struggle in the subcontinent and also to assess what we have achieved down the years.




The year 2007 also marks the 150th year of the Revolt of 1857 –– rightly characterised by Karl Marx as the War of Indian Independence. Although the pre-1885 popular opposition against British oppression – like tribal revolts and intermittent peasant upsurges – played a role in developing nationalist consciousness among the people, the national liberation movement acquired an organised pan-Indian shape with the birth of the Indian National Congress as a broad platform under the aegis of the bourgeois leadership. In a country like ours, the mainstream national liberation struggle developed in stages. It is striking to note that the Congress was founded in the backdrop of nationalist economic critique of British rule. Nationalist stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji drew attention to the drain of wealth from the colonised India.


The situation changed fast with the gradual strengthening of organised popular resistance across India. The Swadeshi movement during the first decade of the last century marked an important phase in the growth of organised popular resistance across India. Another turning point was the growth of political consciousness of the working class, which became evident from the period of the First World War. However, it was the entry of Gandhiji in Indian politics that marked further maturity and consolidation of the freedom struggle. Gandhiji’s contribution to the politicisation of the masses from all walks of life – students, youth, women, peasants and workers – and his commitment to secular values helped radicalise the movement. The Rowlatt satyagraha was his first confrontation with the British Raj. But despite Gandhiji’s profound impact, the main negative trait of Gandhian nationalism was its opposition to class politics. The basic premise of his concept of non-violence negates the class consciousness of the working people. It is also a fact that Indian independence struggle was characterised by various streams of militant struggles along with armed struggles, all of which contributed to the gradual erosion of the mighty colonial regime.




Despite ceaseless repression, communists played an immensely important role in the freedom struggle. They made tremendous sacrifices in organising the working people. The Communist Party of India was formed outside the country by the revolutionary patriots working abroad, including revolutionaries of the Khilafat movement and the Hijrat movement who went abroad during and after the First World War and the Gadar Party activists. Simultaneously various communist groups were formed in different parts of India during the early 1920s. The communist movement grew with the gradual enhancement of the political consciousness of the working masses. The October Revolution of 1917 also had its impact. It awakened the hope for a new social order and gave immense impetus to the fighting people in India. The Revolution contributed to the weakening of the very foundation of the imperialist-colonial system after the end of the First World War.


The Third Communist International (Comintern) founded in March 1919 stood firmly in support of the struggling Indian masses. The spirit of proletarian internationalism also guided the Communist Party of Great Britain to denounce the British colonial rule in India and come forward to share our sacrifices. We should remember the contribution of communists Rajani Palme Dutt (RPD), Clemens Dutt, Philip Spratt and Ben Bradley. Spratt and Bradley were even imprisoned and convicted in Meerut ‘Conspiracy’ case.


Here, I should also remember the dedication and unflinching solidarity of the British communists in extending every possible support to organise the Indians, including students like us while studying in Britain. It was during my student days in London in the latter half of 1930s that I got involved with communist activities there and came in touch with CPGB leaders like Harry Pollitt, Bradley and Clemens Dutt. The memory of my visit to the residence of RPD to see the ailing leader has not yet faded in my mind. I was elected secretary of ‘London Majlis’, a student body to campaign for our independence and against fascism. One of our tasks was to hold a reception for visiting Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Bhulabhai Desai and Subhas Chandra Bose.


The communists while participating in the freedom struggle devoted their strength to the task of organising workers in trade unions, peasants in the Kisan Sabha, students, youth and women in their unions. It was due to these efforts that mass organisations like the AIKS and the AISF were founded and the AITUC strengthened. The communists took the initiative in founding organisations like the All India Progressive Writers' Association (AIPWA) and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA).


The Indian communists have a proud record of dedication and sacrifices in the cause of national liberation, in defence of the interests of the working class, peasantry and other toiling millions. They were able to draw into their fold the overwhelming majority of revolutionaries and represented the best traditions of revolutionary movement in India.


The communists in India were the first to raise the demand for complete independence (Poorna Swaraj) and put forward a resolution to this effect in the Ahmedabad session of the Indian National Congress in 1921. While demanding complete independence, the communists stressed the need for providing radical content to the slogan of swaraj through a definite programme for social and economic change by including such vital questions as abolition of landlordism, combating communalism, ending the feudal domination and elimination of caste oppression.


The British rulers unleashed brutal repression on the fledgling communist groups and banned communist literature to prevent the spread of socialist ideas. They slapped a series of conspiracy cases to crush the young communist movement –– Peshawar (1922); Kanpur (1924) and Meerut (1929). The Party was declared illegal soon after its formation in the 1920s and had to work underground for over two decades. The Meerut prisoners themselves tried to utilise whatever limited opportunity they had to intervene in the national politics. From the dock they challenged the colonial imperialism and tried their best to reset the agenda for national liberation struggle. The trial also, for the first time since the inception of the communist groups in various parts of India, gave them an opportunity to interact with each other on political issues and to come to a common political understanding. However, it was not till middle of August 1933 when the first of the Meerut prisoners were released, that anything in nature of a serious attempt of reorganisation was made. By the end of 1933, an all India centre of the Party was formed.


The communist movement in India thus took a new course, despite the fact that the British colonialists imposed a stringent ban on CPI and its affiliated organisations in July 1934. The Party made sincere attempts to implement the United Front policy. In line with this policy, the reorganised CPI decided to join the Congress Party and later the Congress Socialist Party. It was during this period that Jawaharlal Nehru had assumed the Congress presidentship. The communists and socialists were inducted into the AICC in Lucknow Congress session (April 1936). Two important all India organisations were also founded in Lucknow at the same time –– AIKS and AIPWA. The communists were the leading force in both the organisations. The All India Students Federation (AISF) was also formed during this period. The Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed in 1943. The United Front policy helped the CPI spread its influence over national politics and to increase its organisational strength. The Rightists in the Congress started getting afraid of the increasing influence of the Leftists within the Congress. In 1939 Tripuri Congress, the Right wingers were determined to oust Subhas Chandra Bose from the post of Congress presidentship. Bose was elected president with the support of the communists. Ultimately, Bose had to resign and form the Forward Bloc. Communists, however, did not agree with him and wanted the Congress to remain as a broad united platform.




The post Second World War period saw a powerful anti-imperialist and anti-feudal upsurge of the Indian people. Though in retrospect some of our inadequacies to assess the situation correctly could be indicated during the ‘People’s War’ period, one should not underestimate the contribution of the anti-fascist movement led by the communists when the War broke out and the Axis powers led by Hitler’s Germany attacked the USSR. We had to fight out the rabid right-wing attack to malign the communist movement.


The first Congress of the CPI was held in 1943 in Bombay. The Communist Party was in the forefront leading historic struggles like Tebhaga movement, peasant movements in Punnapra-Vayalar, North Malabar, the Warli adivasis upsurge, militant movement of the tribal people in Tripura and Telangana peasants' armed struggle. The communists also played a leading role in the people's movements in many princely states and actively helped to liberate the French and Portuguese enclaves of Pondicherry and Goa.


The Party played a heroic role in mobilising mass support during the struggle demanding the release of INA prisoners and those jailed in the historic Naval Mutiny of 1946. The communist workers also played a glorious role against the communal forces and worked tirelessly to restore communal harmony and peace. When the Great Calcutta Killings occurred in August 1946, it was the communists who played a crucial role in disseminating the message of peace and harmony. After the riots spread to Noakahli, Gandhiji himself first came down to Calcutta and then went to Noakhali to restore communal amity. I also remember that day in 1947 — when Gandhiji was camping in Beliaghata and I along with Bhupesh Gupta went to meet him. He advised us to organise joint rallies of Hindus and Muslims. We acted accordingly. But the first rally in Park Circus was broken up. I also went with him to North 24 Parganas where a mass meeting was held.


The defeat of fascism in Europe and the decisive role played by the USSR in it further strengthened the decolonisation movements worldwide. The then British prime minister Clement Attlee had to concede at the time that the days were numbered for the British rule in India. However, at this juncture of the mounting tide of national liberation movements, British imperialism and the leaders of the major bourgeois parties – the Congress and the Muslim League – chose to strike a compromise. In the bargain the bourgeois leadership accepted the price of the unfortunate partition of the country and the resultant fratricidal killing of tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims. India and Pakistan came into existence as independent States under the bourgeois-landlord leadership. Thus, the stage of a general national united front, chiefly directed against foreign imperialist rule, came to an end.


I can recollect those turbulent days even now. I came back to India in January 1940 before publication of results of my law examination. Even before leaving London, I had made up my mind that instead of becoming a practicing barrister I would join the Communist Party as a whole-timer. In Kolkata I had acted as secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU) and took part in relief and rehabilitation work during the 1943 famine. In 1945, the Party deputed me as an organiser of the Provincial Committee (PCO).


Before that in 1944, the party assigned me the task of organising the Bengal-Assam railway workers into a trade union. We succeeded in forming the Bengal-Assam Railroad Workers Union, of which I became the secretary and Comrade Bankim Mukherjee took charge as the president. Later Md Ismail took over as president of the union.


I entered the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1946 defeating Humayun Kabir from the railway’s constituency. Only three communist candidates won the elections –Comrade Rupnarayan Roy from Dinajpur, Comrade Ratanlal Brahman from Darjeeling and myself. The Muslim League was the ruling party. Numerically we were small. But we tried our level best to utilise the assembly as the representatives of the toiling masses and kept raising burning issues of the day. However, the Party at the national plane was not powerful enough to influence decisively the entire course of history in the country. It was during the Muslim League rule that the massive Tebhaga Movement spread throughout Bengal. I had the occasion to be in touch with the struggle.




The significance of India’s independence was manifold. It was a great blow to the entire colonial system and a boost for the decolonisation movement worldwide. Within the country, it offered a qualitatively new situation for the working people to confront with. After independence when the bourgeois parliamentary democracy was adopted, our Party decided to participate in the legislatures along with carrying out extra-legislative activities. In all these years we have had varied experience, both positive and negative in regard to democracy in our country.


I should not hesitate to admit that the Left-adventurist strategical-tactical and organisational line adopted at the second congress of the CPI in 1948 was erroneous. But taking advantage of the situation, the Congress rulers unleashed fierce attacks against us. The Party continued to face repression even after the country achieved independence. The Party was banned between 1948 and 1951 in all major strongholds, including in West Bengal. Many of us, including myself – although still an MLA – were detained without trial in free India. After the adoption of the Constitution, our Party was legalised under the orders of the Calcutta High Court and many of us were released only then.


However, the Constitution we have adopted reflects some of the ambiguities of the ruling classes. The Constitution declares India as a socialist republic. In reality, the State power rests with the bourgeois-landlord class led by the big bourgeoisie. The directive principles though declared as ‘fundamental in the governance of the country’ have not been complied with by the ruling Congress party. The Constitution enables the government to enact legislation for detaining people without trial and other draconian laws. Articles like 356 have been used many a time to oust elected governments. Even emergency, which abolished all rights of the people including the right to life, was declared under the provisions of the Constitution. On the other hand the rich-poor gap is increasing day by day and the concentration of wealth has taken an alarming shape. Consequently, class polarisation became accentuated in both urban and rural sectors.


Despite the negative features of the Constitution and a capitalist landlord dominated bourgeois parliamentary system, we have to utilise whatever opportunities are available to further the interests of the people. We in West Bengal never enacted draconian laws which are undemocratic and anti-people and used those undemocratic provisions against the common people. We have always expressed our opposition to black laws like MISA or TADA.




The communists have been playing a progressive role in Indian politics since the inception of the Communist Party. With clear-cut alternative policies to the bourgeois-landlord government policies, the Left movement is a significant force in the country's political and social domains. The first communist ministry in Kerala formed in 1957 and later the CPI(M) and Left-led governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura even with limited powers showed the way by striving to implement pro-people alternate policies. These governments implemented land reforms within the existing framework, decentralised powers and revitalised the panchayat system, ensured democratic rights for the working people and strengthened the democratic forces in the country. The Left-led governments today constitute a vital element of the Left and democratic movement in the country.


The CPI(M) was formed in 1964 after a prolonged struggle against revisionism. It adopted a programme and subsequently defended the strategy and tactics based on this understanding from both revisionism and dogmatism.


Since its formation, the CPI(M) has striven to mobilise the people against the ills of bourgeois-landlord rule. The CPI(M)-led Left forces in Bengal organised a series of democratic movements against price rise, industrial recession, shrinking job opportunities and continuing food crisis. In 1966, the outburst of popular anger assumed unprecedented proportion.


At this critical juncture the fourth general elections of 1967 saw Congress face dismal defeats in nine states. In West Bengal, the first non-congress government was formed in 1967 by a combination of the Left and democratic parties –– the United Front government. But the United Front government was not allowed to last beyond nine months.


Nevertheless, thwarting every conspiracy and the brute counter-democratic approach of the then Congress-run union government, the United Front came back to office in February 1969 with a massive mandate in the mid-term polls. The democratic and trade union rights that were done away with during successive Congress regimes were restored by the UF government. Important efforts were made to implement land reforms in the interest of the landless peasants, poor and marginal farmers, share-croppers and other sections of the rural poor. One of the historic decisions was to takeover the management of Calcutta Tram Ways. Concrete measures were taken to safeguard the interests of the refugees, 60 lakh of whom migrated into West Bengal. Municipal rules were revised. All these unnerved the forces of reaction.


And once again – thanks to the conspiracy hatched by the Congress party and a section in the Front – the second United Front government was thrown out of power in March 1970. West Bengal was put under President’s Rule. They singled out the CPI(M) for all-out attack, even physically. The notorious semi-fascist terror was let loose in the state. The people of the state had a bitter experience but never held us responsible for the demise of the two UF governments. They have not forgotten the way the CPI(M) was denied the Constitutional right to form the state government after 1971 assembly elections when it alone won 111 seats and emerged as the single largest party in the assembly. It may be recalled that the leader of a party which had a strength of only five seats in the 277-member house was made the chief minister. The unholy alliance was bound to be unstable. It could not even survive the budget session.


A serious blow to parliamentary democracy was dealt in the 1972 general election when large scale rigging and terror were resorted to in connivance with the central government. The election was turned into a farce. The army was also called out, like in 1971, to patrol the streets. The Election Commissioner expressed his inability to help us. Indira Gandhi earlier dismissed our apprehensions when we met her on a deputation before the election.


(To be continued)