People's Democracy

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


No. 34

August 31 , 2008


The 20th Century: A Journey  With Comrade Surjeet

Born in 1916 and sent to jail for the first time in 1932, Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet was not only witness to the most part of the last century but was also active politically for two-thirds of that century.

On the eve of 21st century Rajendra Sharma spoke to Comrade Surjeet at length on how he looked at the developments of that century. Below we reproduce a part of that interview pertaining to Indian freedom struggle and independence. The interview was published in the January 2, 2000 issue of People’s Democracy.

Q: During the Second World War, the Congress governments had resigned. What form did the nationalist movement take after this?

ANS: On September 1, 1939, with the German attack on Poland, the Second World War broke out. Within a fortnight, the Congress recalled its members from the legislature in protest against dragging India into the war without taking the countrymen into confidence. The Congress governments thus resigned. Despite this, after the declaration of war, the British government launched an offensive against the communists and other Left leaders. Large scale arrests were made in September. Our main leaders were either arrested or had to go underground. Our resistance was not limited to the war only: it aimed to take the freedom struggle into a decisive phase. Our aim was to convert the war into a civil war.

Against the burden of war, the textile workers of Bombay and Kanpur, 20,000 municipal workers of Calcutta, jute workers of Bengal and Bihar, oil workers of Digboi (Assam), coal workers of Dhanbad and Jharia, iron mine workers of Jamshedpur and workers of many other major industries raised the demand of dearness allowance in a big way and organised massive strikes. The working class was activating itself and was determined to fight despite brutal repression. On the other hand, the Congress wanted to utilise the opportunity of war to bargain with the British. It was even ready to support them in the course of war, if they agreed to promise anything concrete. At that time, even the CSP began to target the communists for not supporting the non-violence of Gandhi, and stated expelling them from the party.

Q: And after the Nazi attack on Russia?

ANS: On May 22, 1941, Hitler’s army attacked Russia. By the end of that year, even America had been dragged into the war. Now the Congress could see the right time for talks: by the end of 1941, majority of Congress leaders had been released from jail as the British too wanted to break the ice. However, the Cripps Mission, sent under pressure of the allies, failed as the British were not ready to lose India.

In these circumstances, the Congress seized the opportunity to increase its activity. In its Bombay session on August 18, 1942, the slogan of “Bharat Chhodo” was given. On the other hand, as the communist leadership was still in jail, their opposition to the war continued for six more months after the attack on Russia. Later, after a long discussion with the leaders imprisoned in Devli camp, it was decided that since the character of war had changed, support has to be given to the war efforts. After this, many Party leaders were freed in May 1942, though I, along with my colleagues, remained in jail till 1944. The Party was legally recognised after a long time.

During this period, a lot of falsehood was spread against our Party, which did go down to the masses. But we demanded that responsibility be entrusted to those who represent the people’s aspirations, and we were consistently opposing the repressive tactics of the British. Therefore the falsehood that we were supporting the British was not totally accepted by the public.

The reality is that we failed to integrate our strategy with the anger of the masses against imperialism, and at times we stood in opposition to the public feelings. Hence the self-criticism on the issue of Subhash Bose and the Quit India Movement. In other words, we failed to link the international contradictions with those at the domestic level.

Q: On the issue of Subhash Chandra Bose also?

ANS: Bose was considered as Leftist leader of the Congress. After having been the Congress secretary with Nehru, he was elected president in 1938. Then again in 1939, he was elected Congress president against the wishes of Gandhi, in fact by defeating his candidate Pattabhi Sitaramiah. After his re-election at the Tripuri session, an attempt was made to curtail the power of the Congress president, due to which Bose tendered his resignation. The youth felt a great attraction towards Bose. At the beginning of the Second World War, Bose had decided to liberate the country with the support of outside forces. Unfortunately, to attain freedom, he saw no harm in collaborating with the imperialists or fascists. As soon as the war broke out, he tried to go to Russia. One of our colleagues, Achchhar Singh Cheema, had made arrangements for his safe passage to Kabul. But due to some reasons, he was unable to reach Russia. Then he decided to go to Germany.

By that time Germany was gaining in the war. The Indians in the British army, led by General Mohan Singh, had surrendered and formed the INA in Singapore. Mohan Singh had placed pre-conditions for the Japanese that they would help in India’s freedom struggle but would not interfere. It is understood that the Japanese did not accept these pre-conditions, and had placed Mohan Singh under house arrest.

Bose further concretised these plans and formed the INA on September 1, 1942. It is beyond doubt that there was unparalleled patriotism behind this move, though it is true that in such circumstances, he was unable to realise his mistake of aligning with fascism to fight imperialism.

Q: What was the role of the communists in mass struggles after the Second World War?

ANS: After the victory of the Red Army in Stalingrad in 1943, the process of the fascists losing had begun. Gandhi was released from Agha Khan Mahal in May 1944. Then he immediately withdrew the Quit India Movement. After a year, there was a sort of an agreement between the Congress and the Muslim League on the issue of the interim government.

However, the British government modified Viceory Wavell’s Congress-League formula into a Hindu-Muslim formula. But this not only led to the failure of the Shimla conference even before it was held: it also showed that the British were interested only in keeping their colony safe by creating a communal divide.

On the other hand, in Bengal in 1945, the Tebhaga movement had begun, which was an indication of the common masses joining the anti-feudal struggle of the peasants. Peasants had begun struggles in other north eastern parts also.

In this regard, a memorable struggle is the armed struggle of the peasants in Telangana. Then the armed forces too were not untouched by the general mood in the country. After the air force strike, there took place in February 1946 the RIN mutiny and workers staged a strike in its support. This took the explosive situation to its peak.

On the other hand, not only the British but the Congress and the League also understood the consequences of a mass uprising. It is no coincidence that the naval mutiny began on February 18, 1946, and the next day, Atlee announced in British parliament that the Cabinet Mission is being sent to India. This was the beginning of the long, complicated talks for the transfer of power called independence. The British decided to seize the initiative and, ironically, both the Congress and the League accepted the communally divided independence, to keep mass unrest at bay.

Q: What was the role of various streams on the demand for creation of Pakistan and partition?

ANS: The biggest role was of the British who, since the beginning of the century, used the communal divide to prolong their stay in India. They even used the Muslim League as a powerful weapon for this. But the League alone cannot be faulted for this; the major organisation of the nationalist movement, the Congress, was also mainly responsible for the alienation of the minorities. The 1939 Tripuri session of the Congress was inaugurated with a havan by the pandits; we were present in Maulana Azad’s tent there. He tauntingly asked: which non-Hindu will be ready to join the Congress now?

Of all the traditional Congress leaders, it was Gandhi alone who had tried to win over the minorities for that party. After the Second World War, the League intensified its demand for Pakistan. Based on a wrong understanding of nationality, we too initially accepted this demand. But soon we rectified this mistake. This game plan was hatched to break communal unity and to give a religious colour to it. Barring the north-western border province, this communal venom was deep rooted everywhere. But owing to its geographical position, this province had to go to Pakistan finally.

Q: And when the partition took place?

ANS: In the end the British succeeded in dividing the country at the time of independence. Though the administrative control at that time was in their hands, they made no efforts to check the communal violence. The pre-partition riots forced Nehru to accept an exchange of population, especially in Punjab. The bloodshed that took place in Punjab was too barbaric to be described; humanity was nowhere to be seen. The Akalis, Congress all were swayed by this wave of communalism. And the RSS used this as an opportunity to expand its base.

Except the communist, there was no one to stop this madness. Those who led mass struggles in countrywide and the leaders of Praja Mandal movements were with us during that grave crisis. I will give you two examples for a better understanding of the situation. There arose the question of saving the life of Congress leader Munshi Hamiduddin’s brother whose name I cannot recall. We met Gopichand, interim chief minister of Punjab, in this connection. Instead of giving an assurance, he told us of what was the plight of Hindus across the border. Similarly, it was difficult to save the Jallianwala Bagh hero, Saifuddin Kitchloo, in Amritsar. He was brought to Delhi for safety. So intense was the communal madness.

The violence during and after the partition is a black spot on Indian history in this century. The repercussions of what happened in that period continue even today; we have not been able to integrate the minorities in the national mainstream.

Q: What was the role of various political streams in the integration of princely states after partition?

ANS: The conspiracy hatched by the British before granting independence had, apart from the communal divide, another thorn: an option was given to the rulers of various states to integrate with India or Pakistan, or remain independent, if they so desired.

Though Gandhi and other Congress leaders were opposed to mass struggles, the masses were consistently in struggle against the foreign rule. In this context, they had also realised that the princes were in fact touts of the British. The RSS saw a communal angle in this question too; it supported the Hindu rulers but opposed the Muslim ones. In 1936, under the leadership of Nehru, efforts were made to organise the masses of princely states. The communists and other Left forces supported this agitation. Under pressure of the masses, majority of the rulers accepted the integration. After assuming power in India, the Congress regime gave quite a few concessions to these rulers in lieu of the integration.

But the merger of Hyderabad and Kashmir was a complex issue, and the British had an eye on these states. In Kashmir, the king was a Hindu whereas the people, especially the Muslim peasants, were organsied under the leadership of National Conference, for a movement for better conditions. They favoured merger with India. On the other hand, Raja Hari Singh was prepared to play in the hands of British, and the RSS-affiliated organisations like the Praja Parishad were supporting him. But the National Conference-led movement created conditions for merger with India. After the attack of intruders sent by Pakistan, who were strongly resisted by Kashmiri people, Hari Singh had to agree to merge with India.

In Hyderabad, the Nizam’s game of seeking independence was foiled by the armed struggle in Telangana. Unable to face the fury of the struggle, the Nizam had to ask for support from the Indian government. The newly formed Congress government immediately agreed to help him, used brutal force to crush the armed struggle, and gained merger. The repression on the peasants continued for years, though the Communist Party had withdrawn the agitation in 1951. It was the result of this movement that the government in India was forced to implement whatever limited steps of land reforms it has taken.