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

Part 12 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 12


Islamic Communism 

The emigrants soon established a habit of complaining about the ritual purity of the food. Also, a paper, Zamindar, was edited “on the Islamic grounds” with the involvement of the future first secretary of the CPI, Mohammed Shafiq. One of the emigrants, Maula Baksh (1901–1978), alias Shaukat Usmani, from Bikaner, in much the same vein as Barakatullah, emphasized the congeniality of communism and Islam. Even long after joining the CPI, Usmani wrote to Roy that “Islam preaches equality, so does Communism. That is why I am a Communist.” (20)  Usmani was both—a communist and a Muslim and the two murky currents constituted the revolution in the East.

But Roy carried on with the education of his wards—the contemporary mood in the young Soviet state was for the inclusive mobilization of Muslims. According to Roy’s self-apologetic version, the lessons at the school had not been geared towards changing the emigrants’ established modes of thought. Rather, they had aimed at incorporating the émigrés’ revolutionary fervour in its contemporary state: courses were “delivered by several of their own fellow-religionists, did not mention the word ‘Communism’ nor made any disrespectful reference to religion, which pacified the recalcitrant lot.” Instead, the classes aimed at providing the muhajirs with the minimum consciousness for a “national democratic revolution.” (21)

Moise Persits records that this was the very objective that Roy failed to accomplish. A disappointed Roy had found that the muhajirs were “lacking in even the most elementary political consciousness […] they came to fight for Islam, not for India.” (22) Roy’s propaganda work accordingly “affronted [the] ideals” of the ‘national revolutionaries,’ “which was quite inadmissible [!].” (23) Consequently, the nascent party, C P I, was notoriously unpopular among the émigrés. Both Roy and Persits agree that a ‘correct’ Leninist indoctrination consisted of “political education compatible with [the émigrés’] mode of thinking, with their mentality, […] traditions and religion.” (24)  At a time when Stalin declared his tolerance of the Dagestani sharia, this was a testimony of ad hoc revolutionary aspirations.

Roy later justified his decision to work with the muhajirs by a more ‘rational’ commitment to Islam on their part. Despite a deep emotional attachment to Islam, they seemed to respond better to his injunctions than he had “expected and wanted. Most of them transferred their fanatical allegiance from Islam to Communism.” Having experienced a similar “sudden jump” himself, Roy was far from problematizing such “instinctive idealism” among his flock. Nor did he care to scrutinize the particular mixture of communist and religious elements that had enabled them to suddenly agree on the necessity of a “Communist revolution. I was surprised when some of them approached me with the proposal that they wanted to join the Communist Party,” or set it up right away. (25) Being a reluctant “father of Indian communism” propelled by the urges of his fanatical students, the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary expansionism, and the competition of M P T Acharya’s and Rab’s Indian Revolutionary Association alike, little choice apparently remained to Roy but to proceed with the foundation of the CPI. (26)

Persits reproaches Roy for having decided on founding the party even before having reached Tashkent. Having passed through Berlin on his way to Moscow in 1920, Roy was aware of the group of veteran Indian revolutionaries around Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and Bhupendranath Datta. These renowned and well connected revolutionary nationalists were just about to try and gain Bolshevik support. Hence it seems likely that Roy was eager to concoct hard facts, however embarrassing the muhajir episode might appear to the post-Marxist stance. (27) In India, while the CPI(M) acknowledges the muhajir CPI as the first Indian Party, the CPI rejects it altogether.

M P T Acharya

A short passage in Usmani’s recollection emphasizes Roy’s decisive role. (28) Roy was eager to substantiate the vision he had expounded at the second Comintern congress: the vision of instant mass revolution as a united front with the nationalist bourgeoisie. In these circumstances, the muhajirs at Tashkent were a godsend. Roy himself had only recently worked actively for ‘Muslim liberation’ after the conquest of Bokhara. There is little reason to suggest that the radicalism of fanatical, anti-British Muslims should have discouraged him now when he had undertaken to amalgamate Islam and the Bolshevik revolution.

Shoukat Usmani

The new party formed on October 17, 1920, was a household and Islamic affair. Roy and wife Evelyn Roy, Abani Mukherjee and his wife Rosa Fitingov, Acharya, Shafiq (the first party secretary), and Khushi Mohammad (aliases Mohamed Ali and Sepassi) were the muhajir founding members. The latter two had unquestionable credentials as ‘revolutionaries’—Shafiq had edited Zamindar and worked closely with Barkatullah, Mohammad had occupied a senior rank in Sindhi’s “army of god” back in Kabul. Along with the rest of the ‘second-generation’ muhajirs, Usmani remained outside the party for lack of “knowledge of Marxism” and for being at odds with communist imperatives of liberation. (29) Rosa was a friend of Lenin’s steno, Lidia Fotieva. Shafiq’s association with the CPI seems to have been a short-lived one: After having been arrested on his way back to the subcontinent, he was convicted in the Peshawar Conspiracy Case and migrated to Afghanistan after his release, where his traces vanish.: (30)

When the Comintern realized in spring 1921 that the would-be communists in Tashkent spent undue amounts of time on factional rivalries, while political indoctrination made only lacklustre progress, it was determined to close down the Indusky Kurs at Tashkent. Shoukat Usmani recorded the reason behind the closure thus: (31)

The Indusky Kurs at Tashkent—the Indian military academy—was closed down in the summer of 1921. Its use-value had ceased in as much as the possibility of military aid for the Indian political movement was ruled out because the Indian National Congress had declared in so many words through the mouths of some of its leaders that the Congress would fight side by side with Britain if the Bolsheviks ventured to attack India. But Bolshevism did not get frightened and approached the Indian National Congress directly to stand by a revolutionary role. This is not a mere figment of imagination. If one peruses the files of the lmprecor (the organ of the Comintern of the period), one will find in it so many messages coming to the Indian National Congress direct from the ECCI (the Executive Committee of the Communist International).

Of particular importance is the message sent by Comrade Lenin to the Gaya Congress session of 1922 presided over by Desbandhu Chittaranjan Das. This was a direct call in keeping with Lenin’s words at the Second Congress of the Comintern. The Comintern message to the Gaya session of the Indian National Congress said that the Communist International was wholeheartedly with the Indian people engaged in the “great revolutionary struggle” for ending British rule in India. 

After the conclusion of the Anglo-Russian Trade Agreement in 1921 March, effectively ending the civil war, the muhajirs interested in further training, around 36 to 40 in number, were shifted to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), for completion of their ideological training. (32) This ended the muhajir episode.

KUTV was established in 1921. Its curriculum was tailored to Bolshevik notions of revolution “adapted to Eastern conditions.” Students hailed from all parts of Asia and the traditional dresses they wore made for a colourful mixture. A year after its inauguration, the university had over 700 students from 57 nationalities, who had come to learn the “rudiments of communism.” (33)

The institution’s main goal was to “train the future […] leaders of the more primitive sections of the [Soviet] Republic.” Ongoing Basmachi resistance in Central Asia awakened the Bolsheviks to the adverse effects of excessive religious encouragement outside of Soviet tutelage, and hence pan-Islamism was not endorsed. A leading official stated that the “fight [against imperialism] must be carried on in the name of international communism and the right of every people to self-determination, not through appeals to racial and religious prejudice and fanaticism.” Unaware of the close conceptual proximity of the two, the university aimed at endowing its students with the necessary skills to become “leaders in their communities.” (34)

Ernestine Evans, a journalist who wrote down her experiences in the young Soviet state in the travelogue Looking East from Moscow, described the KUTV as an undertaking to reconcile the nationalism of the (former) colonies with the internationalist outlook of the ‘Workers’ Country.’ (35)

Kaye alleged that most muhajirs “seem to have accepted Roy’s proposals [to join courses at the KUTV] as the only means” to obtain food rations. Similarly, Ansari claimed that the “experiments” with the muhajirs had ended in failure. Many among them “clung to Islam and stubbornly resisted socialist ideas. (36) M. Naeem Qureshi concurs that most emigrants had found Bolshevism “unpalatable” (37)

But the fact is not that one portion of the muhajirs refused to be drawn into the socialist orbit, but that another did not. Given the émigrés’ background, it is indeed highly probable that not all of them were intrigued by socialist tenets and Soviet advances. However, as long Islam was part of a conglomerate of national and cultural sentiments of the ‘masses,’ religion tended to be accommodated by the Bolsheviks. It was perfectly feasible for the muhajirs to cling to the Islam of the ‘masses’ and embrace the brand of anti-imperialist revolution the Bolsheviks had designed for the East.

Evelyn Trent

This is also the best approximation to an answer to the question of the kind of ‘communism’ that had led the khilafat radicals to transfer “their fanatical allegiance from Islam to Communism,” as Roy had observed. As he was involved in the running of the KUTV and held classes, he took a part in the transition process. It was further aided and influenced by a prominent faction among the institution’s staff: Sultangaliev’s Muslim national communists. They left their imprint on the South Asian students, not least among them Roy who, by virtue of his connections to South and East Asia, became the “main channel through which Soviet Muslim national communist ideas were spread to the Third World.” (38)

Several muhajirs joined the CPI after having received instruction at the KUTV. Usmani would become a key figure in the first decade of South Asia’s communism. Abdul Majid, besides doing lacklustre party work, was later one of the co-founders of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (Indian Youth League), which he set up together with Bhagat Singh. (39) Fazl Elahi Malik, aliases Krishnamurti and Qurban, worked closely with Roy and became an “important communist agent.” (40) Along with Feroz al-din Mansur, another future member of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, he was active in the Communist Party of Pakistan in the 1950s, even becoming its general secretary. (41) Rahmat Ali, alias Zakaria, like Khushi Mohammad an erstwhile member of the Indian Provisional Government and the “army of god,” obtained a PhD from the Sorbonne with a study on the subcontinent’s ‘communal problem’. Khushi Muhammad worked as a communist organizer in Europe, became managing director of the Masses of India, the CPI’s organ in the mid-1920s, and was convicted in the Meerut conspiracy case following his return to India. Both hailed from the “radically-inclined circles of Indo-Muslims intelligentsia” and sported a remarkable track record of Muslim extremism. (42)

Roy claims in his recollections, with a degree of sadness, that he arranged for the rest of the muhajirs, around 100 or so, to be given money so that they could either settle in Central Asia or head for Turkey or return to Afghanistan or India.

KUTV remained popular. A 1937 British report estimated that a total of sixty students from the subcontinent had been educated at the institution; the actual number is probably considerably higher. Disappointed radical nationalists, members of the erstwhile Indian Provisional Government, and Ghadar militants from North America enrolled at the KUTV in search of a new revolutionary path. Santokh Singh and Ratan Singh, two Ghadarites and future originators of the Punjab communist movement found their way from the USA to Moscow. (43)

The new party, CPI moved in the muddy waters of communism and anti-imperialist Islamism, which converged into the commitment to work for revolution on the subcontinent under anti-British, but not necessarily secular. Inevitably, pseudo-secular.

From spring 1921, the ex-muhajirs returned to India in groups. By inserting spies among the Muhajirs between 1915 and 1920, the colonial intelligence laboriously tracked their movements. One of the secret agents, Abdur Qadir, while offering a full account of their travel to Tashkent and Moscow, perhaps unconsciously hinted at the social dimension of their political transformation: “The term by which communists, including ourselves, refer to each other is ‘Tawarish’, which means Comrade.” Most were intercepted at Peshawar and jailed as Bolshevik agents, effectively preventing them from participating in the communist movement. (44) Usmani, who came back, was convicted in the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case of 1924, alongside Muzaffar Ahmad and S.A. Dange, already active in Calcutta and Bombay, as well as Nalini Gupta, Roy’s emissary. When he left Moscow, Usmani was unaware that the ex-muhajirs were already being arrested from June 1921 onwards by the colonial state. Secret trials and rigorous imprisonment awaited them at Peshawar, the frontier city. Their long journey came to an end. The Muhajirs-turned-communists crossed the harsh terrain of the Pamir, mostly by foot, travelling from Soviet Central Asia to Afghanistan, and then entered India’s northwest frontier.

Together with the lukewarm commitment to party work many exhibited afterwards, this prompted Philip Spratt, a British communist and emissary of the CPGB to the subcontinent, to comment that the muhajirs “were, altogether, a disappointment.” (45) Spratt married Seetha, the grand-niece of M Singaravelu Chettiar, who presided over the first communist conference at Kanpur on December 25-26, 1925.

References –

20. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 119.

21. Roy, Memoirs, 461, 466

22. Report of the Revolutionary Committee, quoted in ibid., 193.

23. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 194

24. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 195–6.

25. Roy, Memoirs, 464.

26. Pankaj Kumar, Communist Movement in India (Delhi: Criterion Publ. 1989), 8

27. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 192 Maitra, Marxism in India, 44

28. Usmani, Historic Trips, 47–8.

29. Kaye, Communism in India, 340; Usmani, Historic Trips, 46–7.

30. :Home/Poll/1924 Nr. 261, 51.

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

32. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 207.

33. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1:269;

34 .A. C. Freeman, “Russia’s University of Oriental Communism,” Soviet Russia Pictorial, April 1923, 74–5

35. P. C. Joshi Archive of Contemporary History, Delhi: PCJ 1920/9, Bennigsen and Wimbusch, Muslim National Communism, 110

36. Ansari, Pan-Islam and the Making, 536.

37. Qureshi.Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement, 1918–24 (Leiden: Brill 1999), 226.

38. Bennigsen and Wimbusch, Muslim National Communism, 111.

39. Ansari, The Emergence of Socialist Thought, 80–2

40. Foreign/Poll/1927 Nr.668, quoted in Subodh Roy, ed., Communism in India: Unpublished Documents, vol. 1, 1925–1934 (Calcutta: National Book Agency 1972), 18.

41. Ansari, The Emergence of Socialist Thought, 81; Spratt, Blowing up India, 34.

42. Dmitriev, Indian Revolutionaries, 36

43. Persits, Revolutionaries of India, 209

44. Judgment of the Sessions Judge, Peshawar Division, Home/Poll/1923 Nr. 62, 2–3; Home/Poll/1921 Nr. 287 June 1921, 9; Foreign/Poll/1927, Nr. 668f

45. Spratt, Blowing up India, 37.

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