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The Meerut Conspiracy Trial, 1929-1933; an Introduction

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Authored by John Callaghan
Published on 17th February, 2022 48 min read

The Meerut Conspiracy Trial, 1929-1933; an Introduction

The Communist Party has been a freely elected governing party in India in states such as Kerala and West Bengal more times than anywhere else in the world and it remains a mass party in India to this day. The Meerut Conspiracy Trial was an early turning point in its history. In this introduction I will try to establish the background to the first rise to prominence of the Communism in India in the context of Soviet and Communist International (Comintern) history.

The Soviet Union was still something of a pariah state in 1928 when the crackdown on Indian Communists began. In Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Luxemburg and much of the eastern half of Europe states withheld recognition. Relations with Britain and China were broken in 1927 and did not exist in any formal sense with most of the Americas - Mexico and Uruguay excepted. Neighbouring states such as Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland were deeply suspicious of Russia's revanchist ambitions, while almost all states continued to regard it as a source of subversion. The Soviet constitution of July 1923 depicted a bipolar world and provided evidence for this perception. The camps of socialism and capitalism were portrayed as fundamentally antagonistic; it was only a matter of time before renewed attempts would be made by the capitalist powers to crush socialism. Soviet diplomacy was designed to delay this for as long as possible and to play off one capitalist state against another by exploiting everything that divided them (the war settlement, the colonial division of the world, economic rivalries and so on). The USSR imagined itself, in this same constitution, as the nucleus of a future world federation of soviet republics as these emerged around the globe. The Comintern was perceived by the foreign powers as the principal Russian device to achieve this ambition. Its failures in Europe by 1924 highlighted the importance of the European colonies as theatres of Communist growth in association with national liberation movements, especially in Asia. Moscow concluded a treaty with nationalist China in 1924 establishing diplomatic relations and renouncing Tsarist privileges in China which both sides to the agreement denounced as the booty of imperialism. Just as the Soviet Union expected to benefit from the antagonisms of the Great Powers and from the class struggle that divided each of them, so it expected to gain from the conflict between imperialism and the colonial peoples.

Lenin had seen evidence of this emerging fault line since the beginning of the century.1 He was also dismissive of those who complained that the national struggle - whether among the subordinate nationalities of central and eastern Europe or those of Africa and Asia - was either irrelevant to the fight for socialism or actually obstructed its growth. When the Great War provided him with the raw material for a theory of systemic imperialist crisis, Lenin became even more convinced of the inevitability of colonial revolts and of their utility in the overthrow of capitalism. His judgement on this was informed by the conviction that revolutionaries must welcome anything that weakened their principal enemies. Unlike most of the orthodox Marxists, he saw that the course of the social revolution would be messy, complex and spontaneous. Those waiting for the pure social revolution would never live to see it. Such people, he believed, did not understand the nature of revolutions. Real revolutionaries were tactically supple in relation to the complex revolutionary process:

'We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat's great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify the crisis.'2

In the dialectics of history, small nations would play a part in intensifying the imperialist crisis. Powerless as an independent factor, they would contribute to the unfolding crisis as 'bacilli' and enable the real anti-imperialist army - the socialist proletariat - to make its appearance on the scene. Whereas most Marxists of the period were content to argue that the socialist revolution depended on the working class movement in the advanced capitalist countries and - to a much smaller extent - the export of these European conditions abroad, Lenin emphasised that the European working class movement must champion the anti-imperialist struggles of oppressed nationalities and see their cause as a contributing factor in the battles against metropolitan capitalism. Once the proletarian revolution succeeded in the West, he believed, the anti-imperialist masses would gravitate irresistibly towards the new proletarian state.3

The Comintern

After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, they made efforts to enlist the support of the many nationalities of the economically backward territories of the Caucasus and Central Asia in their attempt to consolidate the Bolshevik state and undermine the hostile imperialist powers surrounding it, particularly the British Empire. The Bolsheviks demanded self-determination both for the subaltern nationalities of the Tsarist Empire and the colonies of the European powers. They promoted October 1917 as an anti-imperialist revolution as well as an anti-capitalist revolution. The colonies, they maintained, were 'the Achilles heel of British imperialism' and, by extension, of every other imperialism.4

But the foundation conference of the Comintern deliberated in 1919 with scant regard to the colonies because it met when an imminent revolutionary breakthrough seemed possible in Europe. In the months that followed, this prospect became more remote. At the same time, it became clear that very serious anti-colonial disturbances had developed in India, the Middle East, North Africa and China. The national and colonial issues which the Bolsheviks had to grapple with within Soviet Russia were turned into an asset, rather than an obstacle, by the Bolsheviks' anti-colonial convictions during the civil war. Internally and externally the survival of the revolution seemed to depend on mobilising the sympathies of 'the backward peoples'. The Comintern discussed the national liberation movements and the socialist revolution in 1920 and tried to derive tactical and organisational lessons from its analysis. At the opening session of its second world congress Lenin explained how the Great War had dragged the dependent peoples into world history. A small number of oppressor states were now opposed by a large number of oppressed peoples. In these largely peasant nations, he argued, nationalist movements would necessarily fall under the leadership of the local bourgeoisie. The communists would support such national movements in their collision with the imperialist state.

Criticism of this position came from the Bengali former terrorist M. N. Roy, whose knowledge of British India gave him a certain authority at the congress. Roy believed that the prospects for revolution in Europe actually depended on the progress of the revolution in the East. As long as imperialism survived, he argued, it would generate the funds to make economic concessions to the Western proletariat and thus sustain the reformist conviction that the humanisation of capitalism was possible - an ideology preached by the Comintern's social democratic enemies. The imperialist system would have to be undermined to bring the workers over to a revolutionary position. This, Roy believed, was an eminently feasible objective because the colonies themselves were undergoing capitalist change. India, in illustration of the point, was according to Roy subject to a process of rapid industrialisation and this was producing a militant proletariat which, supplemented by the growing army of landless labourers, formed the basis for a revolutionary movement independent of the bourgeoisie.5 Roy knew from experience that the existing national leadership in India was decidedly modest in its ambitions. The confirmed constitutionalists of the Indian National Congress would never, in his view, drive out British imperialism. But real revolutionaries, organised in communist parties, could force the national struggle forward - capitalist economic developments had made this a realistic goal. It was to be expected, in this analysis, that the real revolutionaries would inevitably clash with the national bourgeoisie whenever the latter's interests were threatened and on these occasions the national bourgeoisie would align itself with the imperialist State. Lenin acknowledged this point, while doubting Roy's grasp of imperialist political economy. The compromise formula, which the congress adopted, said that 'as communists we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are really revolutionary and if their representatives are not opposed to us training and organising the peasantry in a revolutionary way'.6

On paper at least, the second congress had promoted the national liberation struggle in the colonies to a position of importance it had never before attained in the European socialist movement. There was early evidence of Communist actions in accord with the rhetoric. The British War Office issued a press release in January 1920 expressing concern that Bolshevik propaganda schools established in Tashkent were ready to send agents into India with a view to establishing bases there.7 That September the Comintern convened a Congress of Peoples of the East in Baku, where the second congress discussions were continued by a heterogeneous assembly of 1,900 delegates. A council of action and propaganda was established and a multi-lingual journal.8 Many ambiguities were left unresolved by these early discussions. The most obvious was the question of who were the real revolutionaries? Communists could be counted only in hundreds in the whole of Africa and India in 1920, and Latin America and Asia were little better off from the Comintern's perspective. Real revolutionaries existed among the nationalists but many of them were doubtful allies. They often preached ideologies hostile to communism - not just religious obscurantisms but also militantly secular ideas at variance with Communist objectives, such as those of the Kemalists in Turkey. It was unclear how the Comintern would deal with this problem. The second congress expressed hostility to Pan-Islamism, contradicting an earlier Bolshevik tactic of seeking to make use of it in the Russian colonies of Central Asia. Complaints were later voiced at the Comintern's fourth world congress that the new position had damaged prospects for building Communist influence within the Indonesian national movement, Sarekat Islam.9 But such complications were inevitable. The abstractions of the Comintern's colonial theses offered very little guidance when set against the sheer range and complexity of the conditions found in the colonies. The very social categories employed by the Comintern - drawn exclusively from European experience - were often only rough approximations to the socio-economic realities it set out to comprehend, and sometimes not even that. Where was the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, or the feudal landowner in sub-Saharan Africa, for example? What constituted the nation? How were the communists to cope with the reality of numerous ethnic, religious and linguistic identities and the possible rivalries between them? Appeals to a class-consciousness that did not exist would have limited value. Where would the communists stand if there were two or three or more competing national voices - a likely outcome given the arbitrariness of colonial boundaries? How were the small groups of communists - drawn disproportionately from the educated urban minority - to penetrate the villages, 500,000 of them in India alone?

Many of these questions were not even asked at the second congress. But the discussion highlighted a further complication in that considerations of Soviet state interests were identified as an element in the Comintern's calculations;

'...[All] events in world politics are necessarily concentrated on one central point, the struggle of the world bourgeoisie against the Russian Soviet Republic, which is rallying round itself both the soviet movements among the advanced workers in all countries and all the national liberation movements in the colonies and among oppressed peoples.

... [Our] policy must be to bring into being a close alliance of all national and colonial liberation movements with Soviet Russia; the forms taken by this alliance will be determined by the stage of development reached by the communist movement among the proletariat of each country or by the revolutionary liberation movement in the underdeveloped countries and among backward nationalities.'10

Though Lenin in 1920 was insistent that proletarian internationalism demanded that the Soviet state shall 'make the greatest national sacrifices in order to overthrow international capitalism',11 the opposite was also true; proletarian internationalism demanded 'subordination of the proletarian struggle in one country' to the interests of the struggle on a world scale'.12 Since Lenin himself had characterised world politics as being concentrated on the central point of struggle between the world bourgeoisie and the Soviet Republic, it would be an easy matter to convince Communists to support policies which the Russians demanded - on the grounds that these represented the central 'contradiction' of the world struggle - even if they were of dubious value to national 'sections' of the Comintern, or actually destructive of local political opportunities. This was no hypothetical problem.

After the second congress, the Russians supplied military and economic aid to Mustafa Kemal's Turkey and, in March 1921, concluded a treaty of friendship with that country which was fighting a defensive war against members of the Entente spearheaded by Greece. The fact that the Turkish state was engaged in the ruthless elimination of the Türkiye Komünist Partisi (TKP) was not allowed to spoil this policy. Lenin's state had thus assisted 'bourgeois nationalists' despite their suppression of the Communists and the peasant movement in Turkey, not to mention their treatment of oppressed nationalities under Turkish domination, such as the Kurds. Claudin suggests that the colonial question was not discussed at the third world congress of the Comintern in 1921 because these facts would come to light and perhaps jeopardize Soviet Russia's diplomacy. Russia's newly concluded trade agreement with Britain, which involved an understanding that both states would refrain from hostile propaganda against one another, might also have been jeopardized if the Comintern had immediately discussed ways of stepping up the campaign in Britain's colonies, especially India.13 Furthermore, the right of national self-determination, which the Bolsheviks had used to rally the anti-Tsarist forces within the Russian Empire, had now been taken up by their domestic opponents, including Muslim reactionaries in Central Asia. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was declared in the summer of 1922, the right of self-determination became a dead letter for all of these would-be independent states. Though the fiction of national self-determination for the non-Russian minorities was maintained among Communists for years to come, the reality of Russian domination was well understood by its victims and their overseas sympathisers. The various elites of the Muslim world were quick to use it in the propaganda war against the spread of Communism in North Africa, the Middle East, India and Indonesia.

At its fourth world congress in 1922 the Comintern debated the colonial question again and acknowledged that different countries required different tactics.14 But since the rationale of the Comintern was precisely that capitalist development produced sufficient homogeneity on a world scale to make an international army of Communists under central direction both feasible and useful, the admission of complexity did not prevent sweeping generalisations on what should be done - and this at a time when the strength of Communist Parties in the colonies was negligible, where they existed at all. What remained coherent from the Comintern's earlier discussions was Lenin's original conception of the fundamental conflict of interests between the national movement in the colonies and the metropolitan powers. Here was the basis for an alliance of national liberation movements and Soviet Russia. Given the extreme weakness of the working class in the colonies, Communists could only play a role in supporting the national struggle. Whether they would do so in Communist Parties of the western type, even Lenin occasionally doubted.15 Whether they would be allowed to organise the peasants for an agrarian revolution against the interests of landowners and others who might form the leadership of the national struggle was logically even more doubtful. And yet the Comintern had seduced itself into thinking that with the aid of the Communist Parties of the West, backward countries could skip the capitalist stage of development altogether and 'go over to the Soviet system'. The fourth congress thus went further in the direction of magnifying the communist role in the colonies than even its predecessors had.

It persuaded itself that the national bourgeoisie would seek compromise with imperialism unless the peasant masses were unleashed by the agrarian revolution. Without the agrarian revolution, the national bourgeoisie would be too weak to take on imperialism. But since the agrarian revolution would harm the big landowners, the national bourgeoisie would do nothing to encourage it.16 It would therefore fall upon the nascent communist parties, based in the working class, to provide the necessary leadership within an anti-imperialist united front. The 'Theses on the Eastern Question' acknowledged that capitalist development in the colonies had taken place since the Great War, but warned that it was 'only poorly developed and confined to a few centres' and was unable to absorb the surplus landless workers. Logically, a poorly developed capitalism meant a small and poorly organised urban working class. But while the colonial proletariat was acknowledged to be weak and capitalist development in the colonies was seen to be confined to certain pockets and subject to metropolitan forces that retarded its development, 'the objective tasks of the colonial revolution' were declared to 'go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy'. The communists in the colonies, it was argued, would act to bring about the most radical outcome of a bourgeois-democratic revolution while organising the workers and peasants to achieve their specific class interests. They would, in short, seek to work for the goals of the national movement while pursuing policies guaranteed to undermine the economic and political interests of its bourgeois and feudal leadership. And they would do this by seeking alliances within the broad national movement while all the while cultivating an independent base within an exceptionally weak proletariat.

This was a policy riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. But it was made worse when the Soviet factor was added to the mix. The myth of 'Soviet' development in the backward territories of the former Tsarist Empire entered the picture to further befuddle the Comintern's analysis in 1922. Russian experience, argued the fourth congress, indicated another way forward for the colonies:

'Under capitalist rule the backward countries cannot share in the achievements of modern technology and culture without paying, by savage exploitation and oppression, enormous tribute to great power capital ... For backward countries the Soviet system represents the most painless transitional form from primitive conditions of existence to the advanced communist culture ... This is proved by the experience of the Soviet structure in the liberated colonies of the Russian empire.'17

The many facets of the Comintern's colonial theses thus offered numerous opportunities for changes of emphasis as circumstances dictated, and we have already seen that the changing requirements of Soviet foreign policy provided one of the main motivations for so doing. This factor - what was good for Soviet Russia - grew in importance as the Soviet state survived in isolation and the European Communist Parties failed to meet the Comintern's original expectations. The Russian state needed allies in the world and sometimes nationalists - particularly those with a real prospect of power - were attractive candidates for this position. By the Comintern's fifth world congress in 1924, the dominant view in Moscow was that the national bourgeoisie was the best hope the Russian state had for finding such useful friends. The colonial national bourgeoisie was, once again, also perceived as the main thorn in the side of Russia's principal enemies - Britain and France - at a time when Russian foreign policy was also cultivating links with Germany, the other principal 'revisionist' power in Europe, which had lost its colonies under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Changing circumstances clearly influenced this political arithmetic and one of the most compelling was the emergence of a friendly national movement in crisis-torn China, which the Bolshevik leaders under Stalin perceived as a serious contender for power in that country. While the number of communists in the whole of Asia amounted to a paltry 5,000 or so, an alliance with the nationalists could move millions.18

In China, Soviet aid had helped the nationalist Sun Yat-sen to establish an armed power base around Canton in 1924. At this time, the Comintern believed that Sun Yat-sen's Guomindang organisation was capable of fulfilling the goals of the bourgeois national struggle. The Chinese Communists, accordingly, had been required to join the Guomindang as members in 1923. The Comintern and the Soviet leadership around Stalin monitored their progress - using such field agents as Mikhail Borodin and Roy - making sure that the Communists submitted themselves entirely to the preferred policy, even to the point where they agreed to submit to Guomindang discipline and forbore from any agitation in favour of communism, of the Soviet system, or of the social revolution. By March 1926, the Guomindang was admitted to the Comintern as a 'sympathising' party, and Sun Yat-sen's successor, Chiang Kai-shek, was made an honorary member of the Comintern Presidium. Yet the Guomindang was led by men of landed property who made no disguise of their social conservatism. Stalin and those like him who strongly advocated Comintern tactics in China were perfectly well aware of this fact. It was their intention, as Stalin told a gathering of Moscow party workers in the spring of 1927, to use the Guomindang so that, 'squeezed out like a lemon', it could then be 'thrown away' when the time was right.19 One of the uses of the Guomindang, Moscow calculated, was to fill the dangerous spaces of neighbouring China with a power that was less hostile to the Soviet Union than other contenders for control - Japan and Britain in particular. Soviet state interests had to be considered. Trotsky himself - Stalin's principal opponent in the internal power struggle within the CPSU - expressed concern in early 1927 that the Chinese communists should avoid actions that could worsen Soviet diplomatic relations with Japan and France, given the already hostile attitude of Britain.20

It should not have been a surprise to find that when Nanking and Shanghai fell under nationalist control in March 1927, the national bourgeoisie became alarmed by manifestations of Communist influence in the workers' militias and strikes, not to speak of evidence of the unwanted social revolution in the form of peasant seizures of land in the surrounding countryside. Trotsky now argued that the Communists should leave the Guomindang while maintaining their alliance with it. But the old policy remained in force. Chiang Kai-shek, anxious to avoid the fate allotted to him by the Comintern and determined to placate the fears of his wealthy supporters in China, now turned on the Communists. Chiang had not only benefited from Soviet arms and military advice, but had also learned Bolshevik organisational techniques. His power was growing and he no longer needed Soviet help. The Shanghai Communists were massacred on 12 April and all the forces of the social revolution were ruthlessly hunted down, murdered or suppressed in the days that followed. The Comintern now instructed the Communists to consolidate their position within the left Guomindang government in Wuhan, but the Left Guomindang disintegrated when most of its forces defected to Chiang. Only now, when the battle was lost, did the Chinese Communists receive instructions to rise in armed revolt against their enemies. Their suppression was virtually complete by the end of June. In July, Communists were expelled from the Guomindang party and army, and those who survived the bloody purge were forced to regroup in the countryside. Stalin was one of the Soviet leaders most closely involved in the policies which had led to this disaster - and his arch-enemy Trotsky had been one of his leading critics - but it was the Chinese communist leaders who took the blame, together with such Comintern agents as Stalin no longer had any use for.21 Critics of Stalin's policy inside Russia were expelled from the party and sent to Siberian exile as part of the cover up.


China is a vivid illustration of the high stakes that Moscow was playing for and an object lesson in how everything could go wrong. India presented different problems for the Comintern. The Indian National Congress (INC) - little more than a debating society when it was established in 1885 had emerged as the leading element of the nationalist movement in the disillusioned aftermath of the Great War, when hopes of gradual political reform had been dashed and the repressive Rowlatt Bills were passed into law by the British. Gandhi was able in these circumstances to turn the national cause into a mass movement involving the rural poor. Mass unrest, strikes and civil disobedience continued throughout 1919-21, and the INC became committed to the achievement of self-government for India in December 1920. By January 1922 as many as 30,000 nationalists had been jailed, but Gandhi demobilised the protest movement after spontaneous violence erupted at Chauri Chaura in February 1923. The Muslim League separated from Congress at this moment of anti-climax, and 'communal' disorders - violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim - increased in number. C. R. Das formed the Swaraj Party in 1923 in a vain attempt to restore the lost momentum, but the next few years saw little nationalist action. Revival only came in 1927, when the British decided to set up the Simon Commission, without Indian participation, to investigate the possibility of constitutional reform on the subcontinent. In 1928 Congress still defined its goal as Dominion status, a position that led Nehru and Subhas Bose to form the Independence for India League to lobby within Congress for complete independence from Britain. Gandhi's conversion to this stance was completed by the time he launched the second great campaign of civil disobedience in January 1930. It fizzled out by the end of 1932 after as many as 90,000 nationalists had been imprisoned. While Gandhi participated in talks with the British and then dropped out of overt political activity, the radicals like Nehru became more socialist in outlook and moved towards the formation of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934.

For their part the Communists had first to decide what Congress was, that is what class interests it represented. Was it the representative of Indian capital or of the feudal landowners - or both? Did it act as an agent of such class interests or with a degree of relative autonomy? Were the dominant class interests within Congress engaged in forging a partnership with British imperialism or concerned to throw it off altogether? Was capitalism growing, declining or stagnant in India? Was it British capitalism that dominated on the subcontinent, or was an independent Indian capitalism arising? What were the relations between the two? How did the class interests of the dominant economic strata within India relate to the petty-bourgeois, peasant and urban masses? On all these questions there was a diversity of opinion within the Comintern (until the position was reached in 1928 when the Moscow line tolerated no critics) as well as a changing general line that all communists were required to support. Gandhi, for example, was variously identified as the key to the political mobilisation of the peasantry, the leader who had made the mass movement possible in 1918; but also the arch-betrayer of the national movement, the obscurantist and social reactionary; the pacifist who yet employed an effective form of coercion against the British Raj. Indian capital was variously seen as rapidly expanding under British patronage; in fierce competition with it; stagnant and retarded; a junior partner; politically removed from/integrated within Congress; fearful of leftism, but an enemy of feudalism. Clearly, the changing tactics of Congress and the unfolding of events influenced Communist judgements. So too did the various influences on Comintern policy. But matters were made even more complex by the Comintern's adoption of a general line favouring, as we saw in the case of China, tactical orientations at one moment that could be dropped and reversed at another moment. As in China these tactical zig-zags were often negligent of local political opportunities and developments. Thus, for example, the policy of nurturing the Congress left was dropped in 1928-29 at the very moment when some of its leaders expressed publicly their commitment to socialism and even Marxism.22

The Communists had to compete against the power of old identities based on religion. Communalism - the belief that a shared religion encompassed shared political and socio-economic interests - was encouraged by certain British policies such as the partition of Bengal, which the viceroy, Lord Curzon, hoped would 'invest the Mohemmedans ... with a unity they have not enjoyed since the days of the old Musselman viceroys and kings'.23 It was continued through such devices as the creation of communalist constituencies by the Constitutional Act of 1909 and the Communal Award of 1932, which created reservations for Muslims in the central legislature (which came into force in 1935). But communalism was not invented by British policy. British policy could only reinforce tendencies in Indian society that were fertile ground for communalism. The Communists, however, were sure that the archaic features of Indian society and the beliefs that they maintained were in decay. Trotsky expressed the representative view when he said in 1924 that 'the old Eastern creeds have lost their power and ... in the imminent historic movement of the revolutionary working masses, these creeds will not be a serious obstacle'.24 Yet M. N. Roy observed in 1924 that communal violence in the northern provinces had escalated to 'a veritable civil war'.25 The formation of Hindu Sabha and the rise of Muslim fears that independence would only mean Hindu supremacy revealed deep divisions among those who might line up against British rule. The economic recession of 1929-41 was another reinforcing factor. It exacerbated the economic insecurity of the middle class, led to status anxieties, intense competition for public sector jobs, and the spread of nepotism and corruption. Arguments for the protection and reservation of jobs on a communalist basis - especially in government (existing or prospective) - flourished in these straitened circumstances. Any concessions to one group aggravated the communalist demands of another. But the neglect of communal opinion could also be damaging, as Congress discovered in 1926 (a year of communal riots all over the country) when it lost seats in the Central Legislative Assembly in the Punjab and Bengal. The problem was further complicated by the fact that communal divisions sometimes coincided with social and class distinctions, as in western Punjab and Sind where tenants and debtors were mostly Muslim and the propertied tended to be upper caste Hindus. Communists acknowledged some of these facts but tended to dismiss communalist organisations as 'small ultra-reactionary groups dominated by large landlord and banker interests playing for the support of the British government against the popular movement'.26

The Comintern was certainly faced with profound objective problems in India, as well as those of its own making. Whereas in 1892 about a quarter of a million industrial workers existed in India, the number had only risen by 1.1 million as late as 1931 in a population which had grown from 236 to 275 million. Illiteracy rates were as high as 90 per cent in parts of the country. The population was overwhelmingly composed of peasants dispersed in hundreds of thousands of villages. The country was on a continental scale, regional cultural and socio-economic variations were correspondingly impressive, including numerous languages and, though it was not always recognised, plenty of potential for more than one national movement. Communists thus struggled to understand the subcontinent and what was happening within it. They sometimes exaggerated the strength of the working class, claiming as many as 20 million industrial workers in 1922.27 In the same year, Roy wrote about 'the rapid industrialisation of the country' and estimated 'an industrial proletariat numbering about nine million'.28 Britain's policy, according to an article attributed to the Communist Party of India in 1925, was 'to transform India into a centre of production'.29 Rajani Palme Dutt - a leading figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain - agreed with this analysis and wrote about 'the lightning development of modem industry in India' in 1926. He identified most of the investment in India as British.30 Yet in 1940 - by now corrected, after the Comintern's ruling on this subject in 1928 - Dutt dismissed all talk of India's industrial development as 'modern imperialist propaganda', claiming that the number of industrial workers had actually fallen by over two million between 1911 and 1931, while the population had increased by twelve per cent.31

The Communist analysis of India became truly complex when it tried to draw tactical political conclusions from its understanding of the country's political economy. Shapurji Saklatvala, another British-based Communist expert on India, wrote of 'a mutual understanding between the foreign and Indian exploiters who jointly decided to speed up industrialisation'.32 In 1924, Roy likewise believed that 'Indian capitalism is so much inter-linked with and dependent upon British imperialism, that a serious political conflict between them leading up to a revolutionary situation has become practically impossible'.33 The Swaraj Party was accordingly dismissed as 'ephemeral and lifeless ... garrulous, boasting, self-satisfied, narrow-minded and cowardly'. Dutt also perceived the 'Indian upper classes, the ruling princes, landlords and bourgeoisie exist[ing] under the protection of the British bourgeoisie as subordinate sharers in the spoil'. The Indian bourgeoisie is today a counter-revolutionary force', he concluded in 1926. But he acknowledged that Congress 'is and has been the only approach to a mass organisation throughout the Indian people'.34 What was the relationship of the Indian bourgeoisie to Congress? Roy pronounced Congress to be under the control of 'the upper middle class'. It had, he said in 1924, become 'a purely middle class affair'.35 Evelyn Roy, his partner, announced that 'Congress finances largely derive from Indian capitalists'.36 But Dutt denied that Gandhi's leadership represented the direct control of the big bourgeoisie acting through Congress. The bourgeoisie, he said, remained 'outside the whole campaign of non-co-operation'.37

In 1928, when the Comintern insisted that British imperialism retarded Indian capitalism, the way was logically clear to reinstate the Indian bourgeoisie as an active element in the struggle for independence. But it was not to be. While Dutt and his co-thinkers favoured the tactic of the left elements grouping within Congress and the Swaraj Party in 1926, that is 'to carry on a battle of clarification within the existing movement and organisations', the decisions of 1928 led to a Communist withdrawal from joint work with Congress. Roy now saw Gandhi as 'the hero of the petty-bourgeois nationalist masses' - no bad thing since these were moving closer to socialism and the working class in his view and threatening to split from Congress.38 But Dutt and the Comintern now denounced Gandhi - even on the eve of fresh mass campaigning - as a bourgeois nationalist who would betray the movement that he led.39 Gandhism was pronounced exhausted in 1931, much as Evelyn Roy had found it nine years earlier.40 Such talk was dominant after 1928 and continued until the seventh congress of the Comintern in 1935, when Congress once more became 'the National Front uniting all forces in India who struggle for national liberation' in Communist propaganda.41 At one level, however, all of this was purely abstract; the Communist Party of India did not exist in the 1920s.

Finding a Communist Party

It was not until the 1930 that the Comintern officially recognised the existence of the Communist Party of India (CPI). During the previous decade a number of groups had struggled to lay the basis for its creation, revealing as they did so the many problems attendant on this difficult project. The nationalist mass movement in India was only as old as the Comintern, and only a handful of nationalist agitators were persuaded of its limitations in 1919. The most prominent of these, as we have seen, was M. N. Roy, an exiled Bengali terrorist who turned to Bolshevism as a member of the Mexican Socialist Party. It was Roy who proposed the successful resolution that turned the Mexican Socialist Party into the first communist party operating outside Soviet Russia.42 As outlined above, he made a significant contribution to the debate on the colonial question at the Comintern's second congress in 1920, and generally associated himself with the left communists in the Comintern such as Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer. His disdain for the nationalists was unconcealed - 'derelicts of German intrigue' was how he dismissed the members of the nationalist Indian Revolutionary Committee established in Berlin in 1914. But he also found it difficult to work with other 'experts' on India, even if they belonged to the Comintern. Such was the case with Virendranath Chattopadhya (aka Chatto) - another former terrorist turned Marxist who had been associated with the Berlin exiles since the beginning of the Great War and remained active in the city in the 1920s as a leading figure in the Comintern's 'foreign bureau' of the Communist Party of India.43 When Roy was co-opted to the 'small bureau' of the Comintern in 1920, Berlin and Moscow were competing centres for Communist influence on the subcontinent.44 A third was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which was expected to take responsibility for nurturing revolutionary organisations inside the British colonies. Rajani Palme Dutt, his brother Clemens, and Shapurji Saklatvala were among those who played a leading role in this work.45 The CPGB was constantly criticised by Moscow for not doing enough both before and after this devolution took shape; and Roy, who objected to direct contact between the Comintern and the Indian National Congress when the fifth congress recommended it in June 1924, often took the lead in heaping criticism upon it.

Roy was also involved in the creation of a Central Asiatic Bureau of the Comintern at Tashkent in December 1920, with Muhammed Shafiq as its first general secretary. A short-lived Indian military school was established there with the intention of harnessing pan-Islamic sentiment for the construction of a revolutionary army in Afghanistan, using Indian army deserters and supporters of the Khilafat movement who were crossing the country to join up with the forces of Mustafa Kemal Pasha in Turkey. Roy and at most 50 of these pilgrims declared that the Communist Party of India had been born at Tashkent in 1920 - much to the annoyance and disbelief of 'Chatto' and virtually everyone who knew anything about India within the Comintern. Chatto's group in Berlin demanded the dissolution of Roy's 'party' but a group set up in Moscow by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) in early 1921 to investigate the affair - headed by Roy's close associates August Thalheimer and Mikhail Borodin - found in his favour. The Tashkent intrigues are instructive for several reasons. Apart from exposing divisions within the Comintern and pointing to Roy's egoism and adventurism, they illustrate something of the primitive and provisional nature of the early Communist attempts to intervene in India. Within months, the military school was disbanded (Mav 1921) as part of a Bolshevik rapprochement with Britain; the idea of encouraging pan-Islamic sentiment was dropped; and Afghanistan lost its attraction as a centre of operations when the Kabul government attempted to establish better diplomatic relations with New Delhi. In 1921, the Comintern's central Asian base was disbanded altogether and reappeared in Moscow as its Eastern Section, while students from the Tashkent military school were relocated to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East inside the Soviet Union. Roy nevertheless continued to act as the main channel for Comintern activities in India, shifting his centre of operations to Berlin, which enjoyed better communications with the subcontinent than Moscow. Using Comintern money, he was keen to convert Indian terrorists to Bolshevism. His election in 1922 to candidate member of the ECCI, and his elevation to its Presidium in June 1923, indicate the esteem in which he was then held.

While Roy was inclined to see the struggle between Leninism and Gandhism as a zero-sum conflict, the other members of the Berlin committee were more receptive to the idea of working with the nationalists. But, as we saw, Roy's position as the acknowledged leader on Indian affairs was upheld when it was first called into doubt in early 1921.46 It was Roy who led the attempt, in the wake of the third congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1921, to forge a Communist Party from the scattered propaganda groups that existed in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Lahore and Kanpur (Cawnpore). By 1922, he had established contact with correspondents in these cities, and pro-Soviet newspapers such as Socialist (Bombay) and Langal (Calcutta) had come into existence. The basic plan was to establish open workers' and peasants' parties that were secretly guided by a clandestine Communist Party. The Cawnpore Conspiracy Case of April 1924, launched by the Government of India, led to the imprisonment of four activists who had been involved in this project, including Shaukat Usmani and S. A. Dange - two of the most prominent Indian communists of the interwar years. But it was still possible for a British Communist to report on the complete absence of communist groups a year after the conspiracy trial - a reconnoitre which sparked off another internecine row within the Comintern in which Roy now accused the CPGB of 'imperialism' in its attempts to arrogate responsibility to itself for directing Bolshevik activities in India.47 In fact, the CPGB was instructed to assume such responsibility by the Comintern and its fifth congress was the occasion for a reprimand of Roy when Dmitry Manuilsky said that he had 'exaggerated the social movement in the colonies to the detriment of the nationalist movement'.48 Reports of an Indian Communist Party nevertheless continued to appear. Clemens Dutt, one of the CPGB's luminaries on India, was reportedly torn between suspicion and amusement when it was announced that it had been formed in Kanpur in 1925.49

A Communist Party in India must have seemed an implausible development to British Communists in 1925 in the light of Percy Glading's inability to detect any Communist groups in India after a four month reconnoitre that year. The small groups that actually existed at least showed a measure of realism by operating within the INC with the intention of building up a left-wing inside the mass organisation. The CPGB sent George Allison to Bombay in April 1926 to begin similar work within the Indian Trade Union Congress. He was arrested in January 1927, sentenced to eighteen months and deported. The next to arrive was Philip Spratt, a twenty-four year old graduate of Downing College Cambridge and sometime worker in the Labour Research Department. His chief qualification for the Indian posting was that he was unknown to the police. Spratt's journey began in December 1926, when he left for Paris in the company of Clemens Dutt. When he arrived in India, he found that the 'party' had between 15 and 20 members nationally.50 Communists were like the proverbial needle in a haystack. If they had any reasons for optimism, the sympathy for Soviet Russia that existed among the educated urban population in India was among them. Lajpat Rai, one of the so-called Extremist leaders of Indian nationalism and the first president of the All-India Trade Union Congress(AITUC), is a case in point. He told the first meeting of the AITUC in 1920 that 'socialistic, even Bolshevik, truth is any day better, more reliable and more humane than capitalist and imperialist truth'.51 Jawaharlal Nehru was enthusiastic about the Bolsheviks to the point of being thought a fellow-traveller by the late 1920s, and even Gandhi praised the 'purest sacrifice' of the Bolsheviks led by 'such master spirits as Lenin'.52 The popular support which greeted Shapurji Saklatvala's speaking tour in February 1927 was another indicator of potential support and helped to give communism a bigger public profile in the Indian cities. Saklatvala pressed Congress to adopt demands specifically related to the economic and social condition of the workers and peasants. But few accepted his message that Gandhism was a 'moral plague' on India.53

Political India learned something about the Comintern's machinations on the subcontinent when Roy's letter, written on 30th December 1927, to the Indian Communists was later read before the Indian Legislative Assembly. The letter talked of hiding an illegal Communist Party behind legal workers' and peasants' parties and warned against following advice emanating from the CPGB unless it was clearly acting on Comintern instructions.54 Roy also declared that the workers' and peasants' parties 'magnificently reflected the revolutionary atmosphere prevailing in the country', and warmly recommended the newly-formed League Against Imperialism (LAl), created at the Communist-orchestrated Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels earlier in the year.55 Jawaharlal Nehru was one of its sponsors, and the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, was becoming uneasy about his association with the Communists. Roy still imagined that the Communists could detach all that was worthwhile from the nationalist movement and lead the struggle for independence themselves. The Comintern, by contrast, was working on the assumption that the Indian National Congress could develop after the fashion of the Guomindang - that is as a broad-based radical movement with the Communists embedded inside its structures.56

Ben Bradley joined Spratt in Bombay in December 1927, when the British Communist engineer arrived under cover of his brother's firm - which bore the unlikely name of the Crab Patent Underdrain Tile Company. In conjunction with perhaps a score of Indian Communists, these two now set about building a left faction in the unions and creating workers' and peasants' parties. The first Workers' and Peasants' Party (WPP) had been launched by Communists in Bengal on 1 November 1925. They called it the Labour Swaraj Partv. It convened a peasants conference at Krishnajar on 6 February 1926, and renamed itself the Workers' and Peasants' Party of Bengal. A year later, it still had only 40 members - rising to 125 in March 1928 - but claimed 10,000 affiliated members. WPP's were then established in the Punjab in late 1926 and in Bombay in February 1927. In October 1927 another was established at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. By 1928 these groups were brought together as an all-Indian party, and new outposts were established in other parts of the country. They began to function as a left-wing inside the Indian National Congress, especially in Bombay, with the encouragement of nationalists like Nehru.57 Bombay also became a centre of Communist trade union strength in the course of 1928.

Communist progress in the unions was facilitated by the WPP, which gave Bradley and Spratt, as well as the local communists, a route into the All-India Trade Union Congress. The latter had maintained such close links with the Indian National Congress that nationalist leaders like Nehru, his father Motilal, Subhas Bose and C. R. Das all presided over it at one time or another in the interwar years. At the seventh session in March 1927, G. V. Ghate, one of the Communist defendants at Meerut, was elected to the position of assistant secretary. At the eighth session later that year in Kanpur, several more offices were taken by Communists and Spratt was put in charge of a sub-committee responsible for drafting a charter of labour rights to be implemented by a future Congress government. At the ninth session in Jhana in 1928, Nehru narrowly beat the Communist candidate for the presidency, but seven Communists were elected to various offices of the union, including the vice-presidencies, assistant secretary-ships and the executive. Nehru had in any case moved very close to the Communist position, successfully encouraging the Indian National Congress to affiliate to the League Against Imperialism. These organisational advances were complemented by Communist progress in the Bombay textile mills, where discontent was generated by redundancies. On 16 April 1928 3,000 workers struck at the Mahomedbhoy Currimbhoy Mill. Communist intervention led to a fusion of the Bombay Millworkers' Union and a breakaway group of the Girni Kamgar Mahamandal to form the Communist-led GKU. The dispute itself escalated into a general strike of the textile industry - all the more remarkable in view of the complete absence of effective trade unionism among Bombay textile workers as recently as 1925. Now a communist - K. N. Joglekar - became secretary of the GKU, Bradley was one of its four vice-presidents and chair of the strike committee, and the membership grew from around 400 to 54,000 by the end of 1928.58 In total, around 150,000 workers were involved in the strike that lasted six months.

Not content with this, Bradley was involved as vice-president of the railway workers' union, the Great Indian Peninsular (GIP), which took sympathetic strike action during the textile dispute. Over 200 strikes were recorded in the course of 1928 - 111 in Bombay alone. The Government of India quickly came to the conclusion that the Communists had taken over. Roy's intercepted 'Congress Letter' was produced as evidence, in a context of growing anxiety, much of it connected with mounting nationalist discontent. The Indian National Congress - angry about the Westminster government's appointment of the Simon Commission in 1927 - and the Communists were beginning to overlap at the margin, especially when Nehru and Subhas Bose set up the left-leaning Independence for India League in 1928, The League was led by men who found much to admire in Bolshevism; it was created to fight for complete independence at a time when it looked as if Gandhi might settle for Dominion status. Even within the Indian National Congress, sympathy for and interest in the Soviet Union had never been higher. A wedge thus had to be driven between the increasingly successful Communists and the Congress left, and the method chosen to achieve this was a general exposé of the Communists' true aims. Though a jury had already acquitted Spratt of sedition in August 1927, it was decided that legal action would be taken, though not - after due consideration - against Nehru and Bose themselves. Instead, a conspiracy case was prepared against Spratt, Bradley and a third Briton - the fellow-travelling Lester Hutchinson - together with Dange, Ahmed, Joglekar and twenty-five others. A Deportation Bill was prepared as a fallback position. British intelligence identified Muzaffar Ahmed and Spratt as the source of the Communists' success, reporting that 'Spratt in particular was ubiquitous. He worked in 1927 mainly with the Bombay group and in the following year with the Bengal party. He played a large part in uniting the Punjab groups into one party and creating another in the United Provinces. And all the time he was carrying on correspondence with the conspirators on the Continent and in England, informing them of the progress of the work, discussing difficulties, receiving instructions ...'59

Most of the 31 detainees - arrested during March 1929 - were trade unionists, including the majority of the GKU's officials. Nehru volunteered to defend the accused, who were taken to the remote town of Meerut in the United Provinces, far from centres of potential unrest, but plausibly connected to the case by its possession of a branch of the WPP. There was no jury. Nehru appealed for support to the British TUC, claiming the trial was an attempt to suppress trade unionism in India, but its general secretary Walter Citrine accepted the official position - it was a political trial, the accused having been charged with attempting to deprive the King-Emperor of his sovereignty over India. Preliminary proceedings opened in April 1929 and lasted eight months. The trial began on 31 January 1930 and dragged on until August 1932, transforming the defendants into national celebrities inside India. Judgement was returned in January 1933. Muzaffar Ahmed was sentenced to transportation for life; five defendants received twelve years; three were sentenced to ten years; and all but four of the rest received four years each.

The main effect of the trial was to publicise the work of the Communists in India. There were still only 1,000 members of the party by the time the trial ended, but it had many more admirers.60 The prosecution drew attention to the clandestine work of Roy and Dutt, the role of the British Communists, and the work of the four workers' and peasants' parties.61 Roy, Dange and Ahmed became heroes in nationalist circles. The British had accused them of wanting to do something which growing numbers of nationalists supported. The case had lasted for years and supplied a focal point for Communist agitation in both Britain and India. Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour Government was in office for much of its proceedings, allowing the Communists to emphasise its complicity with imperialism. The leadership of the CPI was imprisoned but the Communists could claim to have won because a national base had been put down on which it could build in the future. The advance of the CPI had still to wait, however, because the next great change in Comintern policy, implemented from the summer of 1928, imposed policies on the CPI which put it in conflict with the nationalists until the mid-1930s.



1. V. I. Lenin, 'Inflammable Material in World Politics', in V. I. Lenin, The National Liberation Movement in the East (Moscow, third revised edition, 1969), p. 32.

2. Lenin, 'The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up' in ibid, pp. 191-92.

3. Ibid. p. 186

4. 'Theses on the National and Colonial Question', 28 July 1920, J. Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-43: Documents Volume One (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 138-39.

5. See M. N. Roy, India in Transition (Bombay: 1971), first published 1922.

6. Degras (ed.), Communist International, p. 139.

7. The Times, 5 January 1920, cited in W. P. and Z. K. Coates, A History of Anglo-Soviet Relations (London: 1944), pp. 11-12.

8. S. White, 'Communism and the East: The Baku Congress, 1920', Slavic Review, volume 33, number 3, September 1974.

9. 'Theses on the Eastern Question', ibid. p. 382.

10. 'Theses on the National and Colonial Question', 1920, ibid. p. 141.

11. Ibid. p. 143.

12. Ibid. p. 143.

13. F. Claudin, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (London:1975), pp. 250-52.

14. Degras, 'Theses on the Eastern Question', pp. 382-3.

15. Claudin, The Communist Movement, p. 264.

16. Degras, 'Theses on the Eastern Question', pp. 383-4, 386-7.

17. Ibid. p. 388

18. Claudin, The Communist Movement, p. 271.

19. A. B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-67 (London: 1968), p. 177.

20. Ibid. p. 177.

21. J. Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-43: Documents Volume II (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), editor's notes, p. 447.

22. B. Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New Delhi: 1979), pp. 171-98.

23. B. Chandra, Communalism in Modern India (New Delhi: 1986), pp. 264-65.

24. L. Trotsky, 'Prospects and Tasks in the East', International Press Correspondence (Inprecorr), 29 May 1924, p. 307.

25. M. N. Roy, 'The New Trend of Indian Nationalism', Labour Monthly, January 1924, p. 23.

26. R. P. Dutt, India Today (London: 1940), p. 413.

27. S. Karsan, 'The Revolt of Labour in India', Inprecorr, 14 February 1922, p. 86.

28. E. Roy, 'The Awakening of India', Inprecorr, 5 May 1922, p. 247.

29. 'Imperialism and Labour', Inprecorr, 27 August 1925, p. 976.

30. R. P. Dutt, Modern India (London: 1927), p. 58. The Indian edition was published in the spring of 1926.

31. Dutt, India Today, pp. 150, 165.

32. S. Saklatvala, 'India in the Labour World', Labour Monthly, November 1921.

33. M. N. Roy, 'Who Will Lead?', Communist International, number 11, 1924, p. 64.

34. Dutt, Modern India, pp. 13, 17, 81.

35. M. N. Roy, 'The New Trend of Indian Nationalism', Labour Monthly, February 1924, pp. 97-98.

36. E. Roy, 'Mahatma Gandhi: Revolutionary or Counter-revolutionary?', Labour Monthly, September 1923, p. 161.

37. Dutt, Modern India, p. 81.

38. M. N. Roy, 'The Ways of the Indian Revolution', Inprecorr, 18 January 1929, p. 64; 'The Conference of the Workers' and Peasants' Party in India', Inprecorr, 1 February 1929, p. 93.

39. Daily Worker, 11 January 1930.

40. R. P. Dutt, 'India', Labour Monthly, May 1931, p. 263; E. Roy, 'The Debacle of Gandhism', Labour Monthly, July 1922, pp. 32-43.

41. R. P. Dutt, B. Bradley, H. Pollitt, 'On the Eve of the Indian National Congress', Labour Monthly, March 1938, p. 184.

42. M. N. Roy, M. N. Roy's Memoirs, (Bombay: 1964), pp. 204-5.

43. G. Adhikari (ed.), Documents of the History of the Communist Party of India, volume 2, 1923-25 (New Delhi: 1974), pp. 498-99.

44. From Berlin Roy edited Vanguard of Indian Independence (from May 1922) which became Masses of India in January 1925.

45. See J. Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt (London: 1993).

46. S. R. Chowdhuri, Leftist Movements in India, 1917-47 (Calcutta: 1976), p. 65.

47. See HMSO, CMND 2682, Communist Papers (London: 1926).

48. J. P. Haithcox, Communism and Nationalism in India (Princeton: 1971), p. 39.

49. P. Spratt, Blowing Up India: Reminiscences and Reflections of a Former Comintern Emissary (Calcutta: 1955), p. 35.

50. Ibid. p. 35.

51. S. Ghose, Socialism and Communism in India (Bombay: 1971), p. 14.

52. Ibid, p. 123.

53. S. Saklatvala, Is India Different? (London: 1927), p. 27.

54. Chowdhuri, Leftist Movements, pp. 78-9.

55. M. N. Roy, 'The Conference of the Workers' and Peasants' Party', Inprecorr, 1 February 1929, p. 93.

56. Report on the Congress of oppressed Nationalities, Inprecorr, 25 February 1927.

57. B. Chandra et. al. India's Struggle for Independence (London: 1989), p. 301.

58. R. Newman, Workers and Unions in Bombay 1918-29 (Canberra: 1981), p. 216; J. Jones, Ben Bradley: Fighter for India's Freedom (London: undated), pp. 8-9.

59. Haithcox, Communism and Nationalism, p. 107.

60. Ghose, Socialism and Communism, p. 312.

61. S. Roy (ed.), Communism in India: Unpublished Documents, 1925-34 (Calcutta: 1972), p. 107.

Authored by John Callaghan

John Callaghan

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