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

Part 11 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 11


Islamic Communism 

MN Roy reached Tashkent on October 1, 1920, with two trainloads of military supplies, to launch the Communist Party of India, with the help of the muhajirs. He had been assigned to Tashkent by the Comintern.

The Communist International (Comintern) had been founded in March 1919 as a vehicle to spread revolution globally. MN Roy would speak in the Comintern’s second World Congress convened in July and August 1920. It was the stage for the first surge of interest in the extra-European world and Islam.

Although a delegate of the Mexican communist party, Roy spoke about India and instantly shot to prominence by challenging Lenin’s approach to the revolution in the colonial countries. The issue revolved around the role of the colonial bourgeoisie: Lenin held it to be a progressive force destined to vanquish imperialism, which artificially kept feudalism alive, and to bring about a democratic revolution. In contrast, Roy insisted that the bourgeoisie was not sufficiently differentiated economically from the feudal order and hence would not overcome it. Lenin deemed Gandhi a revolutionary as the leader of a nationalist mass movement; to Roy, he was a toothless religious revivalist and social reactionary. In the end, a compromise was reached. It provided for the limitation of communist support to “revolutionary” nationalist movements as opposed to “bourgeois-democratic” ones and emphasized the primacy of working-class agitation. (1)

Roy’s rejection of cooperation with the subcontinent’s bourgeoisie does not mean that he didn’t subscribe to anti-imperialism. (2)  Nor was he an anti-nationalist. His ardent nationalism could not coexist with rival bourgeois nationalism, which exhibits casteist social conservatism. Gandhi’s principled opposition to modern industry showcased this lack of commitment to historical progress as understood by the communists. Against this, ‘proper’ nationalism was to achieve liberation from the “absolutism of reaction, embodied in landlordism and all the economic backwardness, social prejudice, intellectual stagnation, religious bigotry etc. that go with it.” (3)

Roy and Abani in Second Congress

Yet there was mass support for the ‘revivalist’ non-cooperation movement of Gandhi. Many delegates agreed on the necessity and feasibility of reaching out to the quasi-automatically revolutionary ‘masses’—a term that had come to be used more or less interchangeably with ‘working-class.’ Zinoviev viewed the most important task of a communist party as maintaining “closest contact with the broadest sections of proletarians.” (4)

According to Roy, the revolt of the ‘masses’ proceeded “in many cases unconsciously,” which lowered the requirements for suitable manifestations. (5) In view of the resentment bred by foreign occupation and exploitation, the Resolution on the National and Colonial Question reasoned that this requires the class-conscious proletariat of all countries to exercise special care and special attention towards the national sentiments in the countries and peoples enslaved for a long time.(6)

While communists were to struggle against the “reactionary and medieval” influence of Christian missionaries, pan-Islamism was considered problematic only insofar as it strengthened rival imperialisms and the position of the upper strata in Muslim societies. (7)  In contrast to Christianity, which was ideologically dangerous because of its cultural link to imperialist countries, ‘grass-roots’ Islamism evaded the communist ban. Delegate Kohn emphasized connective “primitive communist” elements in Muslim law proper. (8) Dutch-Indonesian delegate Henk Sneevliet, referring to those Muslim delegates who had made it to Moscow as “our communist hajis,” called for alignment with a broad Javanese movement of civil unrest under the auspices of the Sarekat Islam, which fought against “sinful capitalism.” (9)

Thus the revolutionary gear of the early 1920s included pan-Islamism. Although the colonial question was largely sidelined at the 1921 third congress, the Comintern emblematized its approach to the revolution in the East by allocating scarce speaking time to the “Committee of Revolutionary Muslimhood” campaigning against the “subjugation of the Muslims.” Committee leader Machul Bey called on the Soviet state to guarantee the “rights and liberties” of the Soviet Muslims, who had suffered an unspeakable plight under the Czarist—that is, infidel—government. On his part, Zinoviev was certain he was dealing with a “truly revolutionary movement of oppressed peoples” worthy of the support of the world’s proletariat. (10)

At the fourth congress in 1922, delegate van Ravesteyn exhibited a pan-Islamic mania: The revolution that has gripped the entire orient and will lead it to utter political independence is irresistible [….] This is the pan-Islamic movement. […] Islam is the bond uniting all Islamites against the capitalist world. Islam is more than a creed; it is a complete social system, it is a civilization with philosophy, culture, art of its own, and […] it has become an organic whole conscious of itself. […] In this momentous fight, it is the duty of the revolutionary proletariat […] to grant moral and political support. (11)

Indonesian delegate Tan Malaka similarly promoted the inclusion of pan-Islamism. A united anti-imperialist front had to entail support for the war of liberation waged by hundreds of millions of aggressive, active Muslims. Neither Radek nor Zinoviev indicated dissent. Despite occasional cautions, the Comintern proved faithful to the slogan given by Karl Radek back at the third congress: “To the Masses. Each day that this does not happen is a lost day for communism.” (12)

The second congress was followed by the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in September 1920, emphasizing the role of mass uprisings to dismantle the formal and informal empires of the capital. Roy proceeded with the setting up of a provisional Central Indian Revolutionary Committee headed by himself.

In the era of the Balkan Wars and the beginning of the First World War, pan-Islamism, as a political ideology gained popularity in India. A student group emerged in the Government College at Lahore, the capital city of pre-Partition Punjab. Some of these student “runaways” escaped to Kabul.

Afghanistan, far from being a bold utopia of Islamic resurgence, was to disappoint them. In Kabul, the fugitives became close followers of Obeidullah Sindhi, a pan Islamist preacher exiled from India. Sindhi and the muhajirs envisioned a government for India once political freedom was attained. With this aim, they studied the British parliamentary model with interest alongside the Quran.

In October 1915, the Indian-Turkish-German Mission also arrived and failed to convince Amir Habibullah (ruler of Afghanistan from 1901 to 1919) to join the anti-British alliance. Squeezed between Czarist Central Asia and British India, the Afghan government was keen to placate Britain and imposed restrictions on Maulana Sindhi and the muhajir students.

The post-war situation improved slightly when anti-British Amir Amanullah ascended the throne. By this time, the political and social aspirations of the exiles stood shattered. They could not take the risk of returning to India; so, they turned further west towards Russian Central Asia and Turkey. The muhajirs keen to join the anti-British war led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey were allowed to leave.

According to Roy, around “200 Khilafat pilgrims” arrived in rags in Russian Turkestan. Some muhajir students, much like the ones who had escaped to Kabul from Lahore in 1915, recalled being warmly welcomed by an assorted crowd of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Russians at Tirmiz. A band played the “Internationale” and the “Red Flag” in their honour. After the cautious and restricted hospitality in Afghanistan, they were bewildered. The civil war, having virtually ended in European Russia, was raging in Central Asia with British support. Tirmiz, cut off from the region and governed by an elected revolutionary committee comprising workers, peasants, students, soldiers, was like a Bolshevik island.

The majority of the muhajirs wished to move on to Turkey; they fell into the hands of the rebels, were treated as infidels, and faced incarceration, semi-starvation and possible execution. Rescued by the Red Army, 36 muhajirs immediately joined Bolshevik military detachments comprising Russians and red Turkmen to fight the counter-revolutionary forces. They were impressed by the example of young Bokharans who had formed a communist party in Tashkent and were active in the new revolutionary government. Confiscation and redistribution of land among the peasants, a revolutionary programme, enjoyed popular support and the general Islamic mood of the place influenced them.

Upon receiving news of the arrival of militant Muslim emigrants, Roy journeyed to Tashkent on October 1, 2020, with two trainloads of military supplies intended for the training of the muhajirs. (13)  He was entrusted by the Bolshevik authorities to look after them. He nursed a cautious hope that some would join the civil war on the Bolshevik side against the British-backed counter-revolutionaries and respond to the offer of military training to liberate India. He requisitioned clothes, housing and food for them in Tashkent. Roy had already mobilised Indian Muslim deserters from the British colonial army, enlisting them into the Red Army’s international detachments. Deployed against the British forces in Central Asia’s borders, some were raised to officer rank, a status denied to subalterns in the colonial army. Roy later recalled: “The news of their experience could not be kept away from their comrades still in the colonial army, and it had a disintegrating effect. The number of deserters increased daily.” (14)

Roy made no effort to form a communist party from the ranks of the enthusiastic deserters, mostly peasants in uniform. He sought communist recruits from the muhajir students. He had already met and persuaded Khushi Mohammad and Mohammad Shafiq to become communists and turned to other young muhajir students from India, about 50 in number.

After arriving in Tashkent, Roy entered into a fierce competition with the Indian Revolutionary Association around Abdur Rab and M P T Acharya for the allegiance of the emigrants. (15) After all, the muhajirs presented potentially valuable material to any revolutionary.

Roy found that Acharya and Abdur Rab were already in the process of organizing a Bolshevik cell, and he had no other option than to accommodate them. Abdur Rab was a deserter from the British Legation in Iraq during World War I. He had defected to Turkey from Baghdad. Maulana Abdul Rab had some influence over the Turkish refugees like Khalil Bey, Hyder Bey (the Turkish gunner) and Ismail Subie, a prominent man of letters in the Turkish language—all residing in Tashkent at the time. He too had a hold on Enver Pasha who was living in Moscow at the time and was regarded as a reliable person till he organized the Bashmachi revolt against the Soviet authorities in Turkestan. (16)

Mandayam Parthasarathi Tirumal Acharya (1887–1954), born in Madras, was at various times associated with India House in London and the Hindu-German Conspiracy during World War I when, as a key functionary of the Berlin Committee, he along with Har Dayal sought to establish the Indian Volunteer Corps with Indian prisoners of war from the battlefields of Mesopotamia and Europe. Initially a disciple of V D Savarkar, Acharya moved in 1919 after the end of the war to the Soviet Union. However, disappointed with Communist International, Acharya returned to Europe in the 1920s where he was involved with the League against Imperialism and subsequently was involved with the international anarchist movement. The charge of Acharaya against Roy was that the funds entrusted to Roy were being misused by the latter. The former had insisted on the formation of some sort of a control committee for the use of the funds and for conducting the revolutionary work. Ultimately Acharaya suggested that a Communist Party be founded so that there could be a legal basis for the organisation, and that the same could be affiliated to the Communist International. (17)

In December 1918, a year before Roy, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto), Acharya and Mahendra Pratap had reached Petrograd, where they worked with the Russian Propaganda centre. Other Indians at this centre at the time included Hussein Shahid Suhrawardy, Abdul Jabbar, Abdul Sattar, and Dalip Singh Gill. In 1918 Acharya moved to Kabul to join Mahendra Pratap’s mission to the Amir to declare war against British India. Acharya was a member of Mahendra Pratap’s delegation when they met Lenin in Moscow in May 1919. Abdur Rab and Acharya worked avidly in Soviet Turkestan, founding the Indian revolutionary association. Acharya was constantly on the move between Kabul and Tashkent and attended the second congress of the Communist International. In 1921 a split in the CPI emerged, between factions siding with Roy, and those who favoured the approaches of Chatto. Acharya was in the latter group.

At Tashkent, Roy, loaded with arms and the Comintern’s back-up, was determined to channel the emigrants’ anti-British passions into communist corridors. A special school—the “Induskii Kurs”—providing extensive military training was set up, but it soon became clear that this would not suffice. Abani Mukherjee was put in charge of the school. (18)  As Roy wondered retrospectively, “what would most of them do with their guns, and whom would they fight, and for what ideal?” Most of the emigrants were “not even nationalists.” Upon seeing his new disciples, the school’s drillmaster remarked: “We are going to train not an army of revolution, but an army of God.(19)

M P T Acharya

References –

1. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 126–58. See also Ganguly, Leftism in India, 10–14,  

2. Manabendra Nath Roy, “Original Draft of Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question,” in Ray, Selected Works of M. N. Roy 1:165–8

3. Our Programme,” Vanguard, 15 March 1923

4. The Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the Negotiations of July 19 in Petrograd and from July 23 to August 7, 1920, in Moscow. 118–19, 141–2.

5. Roy, “Original Draft of Supplementary Theses,” 168

6. Minutes of the Congress, 230

7. Ibid

8. Ibid., 213.

9. Ibid., 192, 196

10. Ganguly, Leftism in India, 38

11. Report on the IV Congress of the Communist International: Petrograd-Moscow, November 5th to December 5, 1922, 131–2.

12. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1:480–2

13. CPI(M): History of the Communist Movement in India, vol. 1, The Formative Years, 1920–1933 (Delhi: CPI[M] Publications 2005), 33–4

14. Quoted by historian Suchetana Chattopadhyay, Frontline, November 20, 2020

15. Usmani, Historic Trips, 47.

16. Shaukat Usmani, Russian Revolution and India, Mainstream Weekly, July-August, 1967.

17. Ibid

18. Judgment of the Sessions Judge, Peshawar Division, Home/Poll/1923 Nr. 62, 2–3.

19. Roy, Memoirs, 467

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