The previous articles to the series “How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists?” are as follows –

Part 1 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists?

Part 2 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 2

Part 3 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 3

Part 4 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 4

Part 5 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 5

Part 6 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 6

Part 7 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 7

Part 8 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 8

Part 9 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 9

Part 10 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 10


Islamic Communism

The inner core of Hinduism, which is equality and non-dualism (Advaita), had become the political ideology of Gandhi. Thus he became a stumbling block, as far as the spread of Communism was concerned. Gandhian socialism, therefore, had affected communist hunting grounds. Consequently, the conceptual abyss separating it from Communism narrowed considerably in practical politics. All the CPI could, and would, do was adorn the preconfigured peasant mindset with a communist gloss. When Gandhi assumed leadership of the Congress protest movement in 1920, it underwent a pronounced change towards mass action and Hindu religious revivalism.

Even though there had been no prior socialist movement, developments in Russia had been carefully registered in the Indian political milieu by Tilak and others. While steering clear of identity politics properly, Communist leader Dange had derived most of his political inspiration from Tilak, notably from the latter’s 1915 book Gita Rahasya, and was an adherent of Vedic philosophy. The influences of both were amply present in his first, as yet mildly Marxist, book, Gandhi vs. Lenin. While it exhibited a clear preference for Lenin, it was Tilak who figured as a “saviour,” whose “fighting Genius” had been raised “to the high pedestal of divinity itself.”  

Sachchidanand Vishnu (S. V.) Ghate’s (1896–1970) way to Communism took a comparably mystical route, as he described in a later interview. Born to a “very orthodox Brahmin family,” Ghate read “Indian philosophy, Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Vivekananda, etc.” All had an affinity with socialism.(Ghate interview, recorded by A. K. Gupta and Hari Dev Sharma, July 9, 1970, NMML-OHP, AccNo 326, 11.)

More prominent were references to reformist Hinduism’s egalitarian and utopian socialist strand from the mid-19th century, which had been actualised by the swadeshi movement: Of all things, Gandhi envisioned the Hindu concept of caste to purify socialism of its obnoxious fixation on economic categories. Vivekananda similarly deemed ‘caste’ the original abode of socialism. (1)  Tilak considered its principles rooted in the Gitas and Shastras. In a 1920 speech, he opined that in Bolshevism labour ruled over the capital, just as in Hinduism and Islam, and advocated for Bolshevism on this basis. British left-wing activist Sylvia Pankhurst envisioned the resurrection of the village system and the transfer of comprehensive responsibilities to the traditional method of panchayats (village councils). Atmashakti, a paper closely connected to the Jugantar terrorists and given to publishing contributions from M N Roy, opined in its November 22, 1922 issue that Communism was rooted in the subcontinent’s “essence.” (2)

Gandhi (middle)in Tolstoy farm

The restoration of a just society of bygone days was also on the agenda of Gandhi. Due to his immense influence on the national movement, his moral and spiritual articulation of socialism captured the imagination of the masses. In his History of the International, Julius Braunthal assesses that “the concepts of Socialism are obviously in sharp contrast to the fundamentals of Hindu philosophy.” Yet he ended up referring to Gandhi as the most prominent figure in the approximation of Hinduism to socialism. (3)

Gandhi envisioned a society of village republics autonomously governed by the panchayats. A prominent feature of these entities was religion (not in a specific faith, but of spirituality), a supposed core principle of human existence. While retaining the fourfold varna as the “natural order” of society, Gandhi opposed the strata’s hierarchical ranking. He held that social distance arose only as a consequence of jati, the stratified subcastes. (4)

Inspired by John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, Gandhi’s economic approach was “essentially moral” and phrased religion and spirituality. (5) To him, economic equality meant that everybody was to receive according to his or her need. “This is socialism. In it the prince and the peasant, the wealthy and the poor, the employer and the employee are all on the same level.” (6)

Communes and socialism were not new to Gandhi. In 1910 he had created the Tolstoy Farm, the first ashram during the South African movement. It served as the headquarters of the satyagraha campaign against discrimination against Indians in Transvaal, where it was located. The ashram was named after Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, whose 1894 book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, greatly influenced Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.

Hermann Kallenbach, a Gandhi supporter, allowed Gandhi and seventy to eighty other people to live there as long as their local movement was in effect. Kallenbach suggested the name for the community, which soon constructed three new buildings to serve as living quarters, workshops, and a school. There were no servants on the farm, and the inmates did all the work, from cooking down to scavenging.

Ultimately, in his paper, Harijan, Gandhi enumerated his Doctrine of Trusteeship on February 23, 1947, when Mao was fighting for so-called socialism in neighbouring China.

Gandhi was an economist of the masses. The fluid international conditions fraught with ideological tensions in the economic domain demanded a fresh approach to economic philosophy. The core of Gandhian economic thought is the protection of the dignity of the human person and not mere material prosperity. He aimed to develop, uplift, and enrich human life rather than a higher standard of living with scant respect for human and social values. Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship arose from his faith in the law of non-possession. The world’s bounties are for the whole, not for any individual. When an individual has more than his respective portion, he becomes a trustee for the people.

The trusteeship formula of Gandhi reads as follows:

1. Trusteeship provides a means of transforming the present capitalist order of society into an egalitarian one. It gives no quarter to capitalism but gives the present owning class a chance to reform itself. It is based on the faith that human nature is never beyond redemption.

2. It does not recognise any right of private ownership of property except so that society may permit it for its own welfare.

3. It does not exclude legislation of the ownership and use of wealth.

4. Thus, under state-regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction in disregard to the interests of society.

5. Just as it is proposed to give a decent minimum living wage, a limit should be fixed for the maximum income allowed to any person in society. The difference between such minimum and top incomes should be reasonable and equitable and variable from time to time, so much so that the tenancy would obliterate the distinction.

6. The character of production will be determined by social necessity and not by personal greed.

Gandhi wanted Zamindars/ Kulaks/ landlords to act as trustees of their lands and use them by tenants. This idea was based mainly upon the fact that India is an agricultural country where more than 80 per cent of the population lives in villages.

Gandhi’s doctrine of trusteeship is a social and economic philosophy aiming to bring justice to society. It provides a means by which the wealthy people would be the trustees of the trust that looked after the welfare of the people in general. Gandhi believed that the rich people could be persuaded to part with their wealth to help the poor, and he held that labour is superior to capital.

He formulated the trusteeship theory after the Ahmedabad textile mill workers dilemma. He became more aware of the prevailing gap of interest between the owners and workers of the industries. Gandhi introduced the concept of trusteeship based on class cooperation in society. He believed that even the rich people are human beings, and as such, they also have an element of essential goodness that everyman necessarily possesses. If that element is aroused and the capitalist is also won over by love, they would be persuaded to believe that the wealth in their possession should be utilised for the good of the poor. The rich should be made to realise that the capital in their hands is the fruit of the labour of the poor men. This realisation would make them perceive that the welfare of the society lies in using capital and resources for the good of others and not for personal comforts. Thus it is apparent that Gandhi‘s doctrine is based on moral responsibility. It is a practice of non-possession.

The Gandhian principle of trusteeship is closely related to the social responsibility of business. According to Gandhi, all business firms must work as a trust. Businessmen should change their attitude. They have no moral right to accumulate unlimited wealth while most countrymen live in poverty and misery.

Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas said that bringing justice is not only the responsibility of the state but also of individuals by being an empathetic, compassionate and altruistic person. Gandhi’s doctrine is akin to this idea. It is the responsibility of rich people to uphold the doctrine of trusteeship by being charitable. Trusteeship assumes great relevance nationally as well as internationally keeping in mind the growing inequality and poverty.

According to historian Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri, Gandhi’s revolutionary techniques—satyagraha and ahimsa—turned the national movement into “a strange mixture of nationalism and religion and ethics and mysticism and fanaticism.” (7) According to Evelyn Trent alias Shanti Devi, “His method […] was one which the peasant could readily understand. He lived the simple life of the Indian peasant, dressed like him, and talked in the language and through the idioms [of] the peasant.(8)

Gandhi’s campaigns necessarily determined the imprint the communists were trying to make. When their mission began in earnest, notions of social progress had already been connected successfully to spiritualist politics. It was only after Gandhi suspended non-cooperation following the killing of 22 policemen at Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur, UP, on February 14, 1922, that Roy’s criticism of the movement really came into its own. He abused Gandhi as the last of a “long line of ghostly ancestors”(9). The factions emerging in the aftermath of non-cooperation, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah, took a more constructive stance. Accordingly, Roy’s turn towards the broad population as the only remaining agent was more determined. This was borne out by the CPI’s first theoretical intervention, the Manifesto to the 36th Indian National Congress.

The Manifesto undertook to identify resistance among the ‘masses’ apart from nationalism in general and the Gandhian leadership’s spiritualised brand of mobilisation. The Manifesto counselled “fellow countrymen” that the “mass revolt is directed against the propertied class, irrespective of nationality.” (10)  Despite contradicting evidence, Roy deemed it impossible for the striking workers and protesting peasants to be moved by the “redemption of the Khilafat” instead of the “petty, but imperative necessities of everyday life” in their “sober moments.” (11)

The non-cooperation movement’s appeal and the Mappila rebellion in Malabar seemed to have convinced Roy that conditions on the subcontinent were ripe for revolution. His India in Transition (1922), abounded with revolutionary optimism. Roy declared the country’s “entire store of popular energy” to be revolting against all “which has so far kept it backward and still conspires to do so,” even deeming the upheaval the “essence of the present transition.” (12)  To Roy, it was clear that “like all other political movements in history,” Gandhi’s popular campaign for the restoration of Ram Rajya was an “expression of the urge of social progress.(13)

Roy concluded that the core of the mass movement was secular. His capability for selective perception developed during the muhajir episode at Tashkent assisted him during the process: to him, Muslims’ susceptibility to the khilafat propaganda merely indicated the degree of economic discontent.  (14)  Consequently, he opined that “politically speaking there is no question of sects in India’s liberation struggle,” and reasoned that there remained little justification for not establishing links with religious revolutionaries. (15)

Roy’s first Program for the Indian National Congress, written for the 1922 Gaya session, contained only a single reference to religion. It curtly demanded freedom of conscience and the separation of religion and state. But his autobiography conceded that the “religious appeal certainly moved the masses, and it was indeed the motive force of the non-cooperation and Khilafat movements. […] The socio-cultural atmosphere, therefore, inhibited the growth of a democratic revolutionary spirit.” (16)  It has to be remembered that by sending a message to the Gaya session, Lenin had virtually rejected Roy’s revolutionary hallucinations.

Nolini Gupta

Usmani wrote in spring 1923 that the ‘masses’ were ready for immediate revolution, with the army standing by for a sign from the Indian National Congress. Much later he admitted that even from a contemporary perspective armed rebellion would not have been possible without foreign intervention. (17)  The upheaval on the subcontinent and its representation in the communist mind drifted ever further apart.

The failure of most muhajirs to return to British India undetected didn’t deter Roy. He relied on agents undertaking undercover trips to the subcontinent. The first of these emissaries were Nolini Gupta. He had reached Moscow early in 1921 with the Berlin group of revolutionaries to dislodge Roy from the Bolsheviks’ favour, but soon changed sides.

Nolini Kanta Gupta 1889 –1984) was a linguist, poet and philosopher who became Sri Aurobindo’s disciple later and lived in his ashram in Pondicherry. He was born in Faridpur, East Bengal, to a prosperous Vaidya-Brahmin family. While in his fourth year at Presidency College, Calcutta, Gupta rejected a lucrative government job to join a small revolutionary group under Aurobindo. In May 1908, he was arrested for conspiracy in the Alipore bomb case. Acquitted a year later, after having spent a year in jail, he worked as a sub-editor for the Dharma and the Karmayogin, two of Aurobindo’s nationalist newspapers, in 1909 and 1910.

He was taught Greek, Latin, French and Italian by Sri Aurobindo himself and was among the four disciples with Aurobindo in 1910 at Pondicherry. When the Sri Aurobindo Ashram was founded in 1926, Nolini settled permanently in Pondicherry, serving the Mother and Sri Aurobindo as secretary of the ashram.

During his stay in India from November 1921 to March 1922, Gupta managed to contact Roy’s former associates among the Hindu revolutionary terrorists in Bengal and won over a Muslim activist in Calcutta, Muzaffar Ahmad. (18)  Roy proceeded to mobilise substantial resources from the Comintern for the task of building a communist movement. He went about posting huge quantities of communist literature to the subcontinent, complemented by considerable amounts of funds. (19)

Having joined the CPI, Usmani returned to India in September 1922 and set up communist groups in Benares and Kanpur. By late autumn, there were the Calcutta activists around Ahmad, Madras-based leftist trade unionists led by Singaravelu, and Sripad Amrit Dange and the Socialist in Bombay. Besides these, there were the group in Lahore around Ghulam Hussein (whose paper Inquilab was run almost entirely on subsidies from Roy), and the cells in the UP formed by Usmani. (20)

A handful of Muslims formed the core of the Party. Muzaffar Ahmad (1889–1973), the “pivot around which the communist group in Bengal was built(21)  had played enough Muslim identity politics.(22)  Ahmad was born at Musapur village in Sandwip Island in Chittagong District of Bengal Province in British India (in present-day Bangladesh) to Mansur Ali and Chuna Bibi. Ahmed studied at the Asria Senior Madrasa in Bamni, Companiganj. He passed matriculation in 1913.

His political socialisation in a cultural association for promoting Muslim literature, the Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samiti (Bengali Muslim Literary Society) from 1913 onwards, expressed his sympathy for Muslim issues. The association concerned itself mainly with the spreading of Muslim culture notably among Hindus. As it was through the Samiti that Ahmad recruited many of the early members of the Calcutta communist cell-like Abdur Rezzak Khan and Abdul Halim, the latter developed an affinity with radical, anti-imperialist, Muslim politics. (23)

Abdul Halim (1901-1966) was one of the earliest organisers of communist activity in Bengal. Born in Burdwan, he resigned from his job to participate in the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921. After release, he came in contact with Ahmad and joined the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party. He organised the Communist Party when Ahmad and others were imprisoned in the Meerut Conspiracy Case. He played an essential part in regrouping the CPI Central Committee in 1933-34. Halim’s son, Hashim Abdul Halim (1935-2015) became Speaker of the West Bengal assembly during 1982-2011.

Abdul Halim

Ahmad’s involvement in the Bengali poet Nazrul Islam’s paper Dhumketu (Comet) from 1922 onwards was similarly literary-political. He contributed to it using the pseudonym “Dwaipayana“. The journal exhibited the radicalism that had already marked Ahmad’s 1920–1921 stint in Fazlul Haq’s daily Navayug. Besides deriding the INC, radical forms of communal political mobilisation such as the khilafat movement were humane treatment. The anti-imperialist mass struggles Ahmad turned to had a clear religious leaning. (24) In January 1921, Ahmad and Islam participated in deliberations on how Muslims could be mobilised to preserve the Ottoman caliphate. At around the same time, he wrote a series of short essays in which he praised “Islamic glory and culture.” (25) Ahmad’s drift towards Communism took place in this period when he was about to set up another newspaper together with Qutb-ud-din Ahmad, a “pan-Islamist and nationalist labour leader.” (26)

In the following year, the Calcutta group was joined by Hafiz Masood Ahmad, who had been educated in a Deoband madrasa. Founded in 1867 during the communal “education rush,” the religious school located in Deoband, UP, represented an influential strand in subcontinental Islam that was as fiercely anti-imperialist as strictly conservative. It regarded British India as dar-ul-harb, enemy soil ruled by infidels, and was an exponent of a rigid Islam and Islamic law. This pronounced Islamic component in his life did not discredit Hafiz Masood Ahmad from becoming a communist. Muzaffar Ahmad averred that his background “was one of the reasons why we had admitted Hafiz Masood Ahmad to our company.” (27)

Muzafar Ahmad

Ahmad was similarly inclined towards Khwaja Abdul Hai, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim College, whom he had met in 1923. “Mr Hai had been a student of Deoband Madrasa […] He was also a revolutionary,” for he had been a driving force behind the exodus of the first batch of muhajirs in 1915. (28)  Hai had distinguished himself by leading the boycott of the Aligarh College’s staff and students during the khilafat movement’s heyday in favour of an independent “Muslim National University.” This short-lived institution, founded upon indignation over the British “sacrilege committed against the Khilafat,” had sworn in its students on the Quran and emphasised the sacrifices its staff had made for the cause of Islam. (29)  So when Ahmad met Usmani in 1923, he sent him to Aligarh, which he considered “a perfect place to make acquaintances.” Usmani harmonised with the environment at the Muslim college. By the time he was arrested for the Kanpur Conspiracy Case late in 1923, he had risen to the post of deputy head of the anti-British Muslim National University. (30)

The Party’s extensive connections to Muslim anti-colonialism was not limited to Ahmad. Abdur Rezzak Khan (1900–1984), son-in-law and follower of the “notorious Wahabi and Pan-Islamist” Akram Khan was an “intimate associate” of his and other core members of the Calcutta communist group. Together with khilafat firebrand and future INC president Abul Kalam Azad, Akram Khan was a member of the fundamentalist Mohammedan Secret Society. In a later interview, Abdur Rezzak Khan recounted having heard numerous stories of the glory of the Wahhabi movement during his childhood. Therefore, “anti-imperialism came naturally to me.” Khan and Ahmad had already met before 1921 when Ahmad had asked him to do a Bengali translation of the Quran. (31)  Khan became an M L A from Hasnabad later.

Abdur Rezzak Khan

All this points to the continuation of political traditions of a sub-unit of the Calcutta microcosm, where “anti-colonial political Islam dominated the world of the urban Muslim intelligentsia.” Thus, the only confirmed recipient of the British left-wing communist Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought on the subcontinent was the Wahhabite and khilafat organiser Mohamed Yusha Khan of Calcutta. Of the other two suspected recipients, one was a member of the Bengal Muslim League. (32)  Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (1882 – 1960) was an English campaigner for the suffrage and suffragette movement, a socialist and later a prominent communist. She spent much of her later life campaigning on behalf of Ethiopia, where she eventually settled. Pankhurst’s relationship with her family became very strained because of her involvement with the Labor Party. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Pankhurst was arrested eight times, each time being repeatedly force-fed. Following her visit to India, she wrote India and the Earthly Paradise.

Ahmad reserved his scepticism for Roy’s plans to involve his former Hindu associates from the Anushila Samiti and Jugantar underground terrorist movements to build a communist movement in Bengal. In several letters to Roy, Ahmad expressed his dismay concerning this move, as the elitist and revivalist high caste Hinduism at the heart of these groups alarmed him and others of Muslim background. Ahmad portrayed them as religious extremists harmful to the cause of an integrated secular movement. (33)

References –

1. Krüger, The International Labor Movement 2: 201, 355–78, 391–6, 403.

2. Philip Spratt, Blowing up India, 66

3. Julius Braunthal, History of the International, vol. 3, 1943–1968 (Boulder: Westview Press 1992), 242

4. Buddhadev Bhattacharyya, Evolution of the Political Philosophy of Gandhi (Calcutta: Calcutta Book House 1969), 189–91;

5. Bhattacharyya, Evolution of the Political, 201.

6. Harijan, March 31, 1946, and July 13,1947

7. Chowduri, Leftism in India, 13

8. Sinha, The Left-Wing, 36

9. Shanti Devi, “How to Organise a Working Class Party?,” Vanguard, May 15, 1922. It was written by Evelyn Roy, in her Indian name, representing Roy’s stance.

10. Roy, “Manifesto to the 36th Indian National Congress, Ahmedabad, 1921,” in Documents 1:132.

11. Roy, “Manifesto to the 36th,” quoted in Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party, 148.

12. Roy, India in Transition, 18;.206

13. Constructive Programme,” Vanguard, May 15, 1922

14. Roy, India in Transition, 235–8.

15. The Political Crisis in India,” Inprecor, NMML, Roll No. 1921/3-B, 29.

16. Roy, Memoirs, 412.

17. Ganguly, Leftism in India, 63.

18. Kaye, Communism in India, 6–7

19. Home/Poll/1924 Nr. 120; Home/Poll/1924 Nr. 261, 41

20. Kaye, Communism in India, 20

21. Ansari, The Emergence of Socialist Thought, 62

22. Overstreet and Windmiller, Communism in India, 61

23. Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party, 23–6

24. Chattopadhyay, An Early Communist, 69.

25. Ibid., 29–30, 33–4

26. Chattopadhyay, An Early Communist, 74, 105

27. Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party, 299

28. Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party, 300.

29. H. N. Mitra, ed., The Indian Annual Register: Being an Annual Chronicle, a Digest of Public Affairs of India in Matters Political Educational, Economic, etc., vol. 3, 1921  

30. Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party, 301

31. Chattopadhyay, Communism and Bengal’s Freedom,152

32. Chattopadhyay, An Early Communist, 23

33. Shoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay, India and Communism: Secret British Documents (Calcutta: National Book Agency 1997), 198–201. 

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