This is the 3rd article to this series. Please read the first two articles to get some idea about historical background:

Part 1 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists?

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

Islamic Communism


During the post-war years, the CPI’s organisational clout reached an all-time low. The communist multi-nationality concept calling for one-and-a-half dozen constituent assemblies failed. Bengal and Punjab were incredibly mild cases. A 1943 CPI resolution had called for a division of Punjab since “Western Punjabis (dominantly Muslims)” constituted their nationality. (1)   A year later, P C Joshi extended the scheme to Eastern Bengal, until then viewed as part of a united Muslim-majority Bengal. He explained on the grounds of the “common bond of their folk culture, strengthened by the traditional Muslim culture.” (2).   In late 1945, with the partition on religious lines becoming a threat, Bengal remained united again. (3) By the mid-1940s, few had a clear idea about the CPI’s plan beyond vague advocacy of Muslim separatism. (4)

Stalin had dissolved the Comintern in 1943. The CPI went with the advice from CPGB and CPSU. (5)  Both merely recommended reverting to the pre-war anti-imperialist united front with the nationalist bourgeoisie. With the resumption of the class struggle nowhere on the agenda, the CPI’s uniqueness as an alternate political force failed to materialise. The party later criticised itself for “tailing behind the Muslim League” during its ‘nationality period.’ After the war, it trailed behind the Congress. The trial of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Japanese-propped Indian National Army and the British government’s vague promise of independence in June 1945 hardly resonated in communist mobilisation. (6)

With the fall of Japan and subsequent Indian National Army’s surrender before the Allied Forces, the British government put Netaji’s men to trial. While three of the INA heroes, G.S. Dhillon, Prem Sehgal and Shah Nawaz, a patriotic Muslim who was taunted as ‘Pandit’ by the Muslim League, were let off ultimately while another compatriot, Captain Abdul Rashid, was sentenced to seven years.

This created a tremendous stir among the Muslims. Rashid stated that his joining the INA was to arm himself sufficiently to safeguard Muslim interests in the event of a future INA invasion in India. He despised the ‘non-Muslim soldiers’ who were the moving spirits of the INA.

The CPI and its students’ wing immediately joined the Muslim cause and extended support to the Muslim League’s strike on February 9, 1946, observing it as ‘Captain Abdul Rashid Day’. (7) The communists hailed that day as ‘an anti-Imperialist expression of Muslim masses’. Jyoti Basu defended the communist position by arguing that they were with the anti-imperialist Muslim masses in general rather than with the Muslim League in particular.

Carnage on Direct Action Day, Calcutta

Meanwhile, the relations between Congress and the CPI took a downward turn. This was because of the communist “people’s war” policy, widely perceived as anti-national and culminated in much-resented communist opposition to the INC’s 1942 “Quit India” campaign. The Congress detested the CPI’s lurid divergence in the approach to the League and its Pakistan demand. Even Congress leftists sympathetic to the CPI were deterred by its constant reiteration of the nationality issue. In 1945, Nehru tried to impress the party that ceding to the ML’s separatist demands would tear the Congress apart. When a motion to bar communists from voting in all Congress bodies came up in the Working Committee in December 1945, they had no lobby left to prevent their expulsion. (8)

Its new status as a political outcast did not prompt the party to revise its approach. Instead, embraced militant anti-British struggles such as the February 1946 Royal Indian Navy mutiny. The August 1946 pamphlet For the Final Assault bore out the CPI’s indecisiveness between united front tactics and more radical working-class agitation, only with the resolution For the Final Bid for Power. that class issues—spurred by the tebhaga movement in Bengal—again asserted themselves on the communist agenda late in 1946.

1946 confirmed the ML’s electoral breakthrough to the long-claimed and CPI-backed status of representative of the subcontinent’s Muslims. It also marked the end of the CPI’s ‘nationality period.’ CPI won only eight seats in the provinces, none at the centre, and 2.5 per cent of the vote. The League’s continued refusal to enter into any lasting agreement with the Congress and escalating communal violence made a conciliatory approach less plausible than ever before.

The rising communal antagonism peaked in the ML’s August 1946 “Direct Action Day” in Calcutta that left more than 4,000 dead. It prodded the CPI to withdraw support for Pakistan.

Before the Direct Action Day violence, the party PB and CC had endorsed the August Resolution of 1946. The CC met in December 1945 had given the green signal for a militant struggle through a document, The New Situation and Our Tasks. It admitted the existence of differences within the CC. Though the moderate P C Joshi was the General Secretary and the general trend was Right, the August Resolution was Left in content. But it had a Right mix too. The resolution said:

“The National Congress represents the mainstream of the independence movement of the country…A joint front of three main patriotic parties-Congress, League, Communist Party and other popular patriotic parties is essential for developing such a final struggle.” (9)

But there was an extreme Left tone in some passages:

“The peasant is lagging behind the working class in this phase of mass upheavals. But even the peasantry is beginning to take militant actions against landlords, hoarders, money lenders etc…Such mass actions of the kisans are bound to grow in militancy…”

“The Communist Party supports these mass actions and will organise the Kisans to withstand the repression they will have to face…The Communists in the States must raise a broad-based movement for civil liberties, agitate against a bogus constitution which the princes are foisting pon the people…”

This document was praised in Ranadive’s Report, On Reformist Deviation in 1948.

In March 1946, Soli Batliwala, a CC member, resigned and levelled severe charges against the leadership. One of the charges was that the PB had intimate relations with British Intelligence. The General secretary P C Joshi had been a British agent was later revealed in declassified files of the Home department of the British Government (10) Batliwala had been a prisoner in Kerala earlier, and his attack was a setback for the Communists in Kerala.

After the August resolution, the militancy of the Communist Party intensified, and its actions became violent.

When every street and corner of Bengal echoed the cries of ‘Ladke Lenge Pakistan’, the Communist Party extended its full support to the Pakistan Movement and even betrayed Hindus during the ghastly Direct Action Day, August 16. They maintained that the demand for Pakistan was a precondition for the transfer of power. The maiden meeting of the Muslim League held in the Ochterlony Monument Ground in Calcutta on the Direct Action Day resounded with pro-Pakistan sloganeering and speeches.

The meeting was attended by Jyoti Basu, leader of the CPI in the Bengal Legislative Assembly and two other communist MLAs. The communists adopted a dialectical position about the Direct Action Day. The Muslim League gave a call for a bandh in Calcutta. The League Chief Minister of Bengal, H S Suhrawardy, declared a holiday in the State with the apparent intent of facilitating the bandh all that comes with it.

In a press release, Jyoti Basu declared that “the CPI would try to keep the state peaceful on that day, with a strike where necessary and without a strike where necessary”. He appealed not to precipitate any clash between the ‘brothers’ (Hindu and Muslim workers) and ‘make a common stand against the common foe’. (11)

As the Muslim fundamentalists resorted to arson, loot and all sorts of mayhem in the name of Muslim separatism, Jyoti Basu fled the meeting as the situation had by then gone out of control. The protagonists of Pakistan pounced upon the Hindu citizens as they were presumed to be the votaries of undivided India.

The riot continued in full swing for five days – from 16 to August 20. The Statesman reported that, during the riots, over 4000 people were killed and over 15000 injured.

The Hindus of Calcutta started organising themselves and resistance to the Muslim rioters. Suhrawardy was forced to call the military on August 17. The communist leaders were left aghast at the Hindu retaliation and momentarily switched sides. There was a feeling among the upper rungs of the CPI that further passivity would push the communists to the margins of political untouchability.

The non-League trade union joining the Muslim League’s call for Direct Action Day was the CPI-controlled Tramway Workers’ Union. This union’s workers had a four-hour session at the University Institute Hall with its Muslim comrade, Mohammed Ismail, presiding.

During the 1946 election campaign in Raipur, Central Provinces, Mohammed Ismail had drawn mass attention to the Pakistan demand of the League and explained the stance of his party vis-a-vis the League demand. For Ismail, Pakistan demand was a ‘natural outcome of the freedom urge of the Muslims’. Under him, the CPI decided to observe August 16 as a strike day to maintain Hindu-Muslim workers solidarity. The communist trade union observed complete bandh in petroleum, steel, iron and jute factories of Bengal.

Though the Communist leadership had advocated handing over the entire Bengal to Pakistan, the grassroots workers realised the folly of this stand. The industrialised localities of Calcutta had a strong presence of communist trade unions.

In his autobiography, Dr Kalyan Dutta, the communist ideologue and professor, noted that in Khidirpur, the Hindu communist workers were attacked by their Muslim party-comrades on August 17, 1946. The communist textile union leader Syed Abdullah Farooqui and Muslim hardliner Elian Mistry led an armed Muslim band into the Kesoram Cotton Mills in the slums of Lichubagan, near Khidirpur in Calcutta.

The perplexed Hindu workers showed their party membership cards to their Muslim comrades and begged for lives. They were not spared. No less than 400 Hindu labourers, mostly Oriyas, were killed. This was the largest reported anti-Hindu massacre in the whole series.

The League rally on August 16

In 1946, the party-wise composition of the Bengal Legislative Assembly was: Muslim League: 116; Congress: 62; Hindu Mahasabha: 1; Depressed Castes: 30 (including 24 Congress members) and; Communist Party: 3. The three communist MLAs were Jyoti Basu from Syedpur, Rupnarayan Roy from Dinajpur and Ratanlal Brahman from Darjeeling. The communist legislators defied the united Hindu call for Suhrawardy’s resignation in the Bengal Legislative Assembly and abstained in favour of the League.

During the riots, the Hindu communists became targets of attacks. The CPI’s Central Committee contended in response to the “Direct Action Day” carnage that “the contradictions between the democratic freedom urge of the common Muslims and the bankrupt […] policy of the leaders of the League will come to the fore, more and more disillusioning the Muslim masses.” (12)

On September 19, 1946, Congress moved two no-confidence motions against the Muslim League in the Assembly. One was against the ministry in general and another against Premier Suhrawardy.

Participating in this debate, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha Leader, gave the longest speech in the House on September 20, 1946, wherein he vigorously attacked both the government and the Premier. (13) However, the role played by the Communist Party during the two-day long debate in the Assembly exposed the nefarious nexus between the Communist Party and the League.

Jyoti Basu said that the British Imperialists, who were looking after the Indian administration, were mainly responsible for the communal riots and pointed out that while the Sindh Governor disallowed the declaration of holiday on August 16, the Bengal Governor did the contrary in Calcutta.

Basu and his party unquestionably played the role of a League collaborator and a genocide apologist within the Assembly. In the guise of attacking the British Governor of Bengal for inciting the League to riot freely, he preserved silence on the flagitious role played by Suhrawardy in orchestrating the anti-Hindu pogrom in the heart of the provincial capital. CPI legislator Rupnarayan Roy went to the extent of proposing a resolution to condemn the stridently anti-League stand Syama Prasad Mukherjee took on the floor of the House.

Both the motions were put to the vote on September 20, 1946. The move against the Premier was defeated by 130 to 85 votes, and the one against the government by 131 to 87. Eighty-six Congress members and one Hindu Mahasabha member voted against the Suhrawardy government. The three communist members remained ‘neutral’, voting neither for nor against the Muslim League.

Despite their failure in the face of the brute majority of the Muslims in the Assembly gifted by the Communal Award of 1932, the most striking thing about the no-confidence motion was how the opposition, irrespective of their political affiliations, spoke in one voice. The Congress and Mahasabha criticised the ministry for the failure of the police and delay in calling the military.

The Hindu opinion was united against the League. But the Communists backstabbed not only their electors, who were predominantly Hindu but also jeopardised the unity and integrity of undivided India. The CPI posited the farcical excuse of ‘working-class unity’ to defend its position. In the veneer of class struggle, the communists did not dither to push the Hindu masses into the jaws of the League.

Justifying their ‘neutral’ stand, Joshi wrote to his fellow Bengali comrades on August 27, 1947:

“We can vote against the Muslim League Ministry provided it does not affect our working-class base, and we can carry it with ourselves through our extensive explanatory campaign… If we cannot keep up even our hold on the existing organised working class, everything is lost, even for the future. Thus the best way to keep all in good humour was to stay neutral. Voting against the Muslim League will have other serious implications”.

In Malabar, when the Muslim League called to observe August 16, 1946, as Direct Action Day, EMS Namboodiripad wrote a leaflet inciting the Mappilas to revolt in Malabar. (14)  Fortunately, the Mappilas didn’t pay much attention. Though EMS had openly advocated for the Muslim homeland of Pakistan, he wielded no influence over them. In the March 1946 election to the Madras assembly, EMS had contested from Malappuram, where he had got only 16% of the votes, the lowest for a Communist candidate in Malabar. He was only able to garner just 5518 votes.

The Congress leaders like K Kelappan and U Gopala Menon immediately called upon the people to remain calm. The government took action against the communist daily, Deshabhimani, which published EMS’ call for revolt. The government prohibited it from publishing any material relating to the past Mappila Rebellion.

Direct Action Day was nothing but the highest culmination of fanatical expression of the Muslim masses arising out of the Pakistan movement. The Hindus were the worst sufferers of the Pakistan movement. The CPI’s justification of a joint Hindu-Muslim alliance was wholly inefficacious and only pushed the Hindus into the horrid dregs of Islamist frenzy. The lame excuses of the communists for endorsing the Pakistan movement swarmed between ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘workers’ unity’. They claimed that Pakistan was a rightful demand of the Muslim working classes. Clinging on to the principle of ‘international unity of working classes, they argued that the Hindu working classes should concur to the political bargaining of the Muslim working classes, even at the cost of their own existence.

In mid-1947, General Secretary Joshi still defended “Muslim self-determination” because viewing the subcontinent as a single unified nation was “obviously […] wrong.” (15). Although too late to mend relations with the INC, Rajani Palme Dutt’s 1946 intervention against the nationality policy had provided a point of departure. In Dutt’s reckoning, “social and economic aspirations against exploitation” motivated the “Moslem masses who have gathered under the League banner.” While partition on religious lines was to be avoided, the ML’s following had to be approached with “sympathetic understanding” for the material and, ambiguously, “national” aspirations drawing them to the League. (16)

Luchubagan slum-300 Oriyas killed

In what amounted to an admission of defeat of his policy, Adhikari’s review of the 1946 events concurred that the ML was deceiving the “anti-imperialist and freedom-loving Muslims” by attacking Hindus and the INC and pushing the “undemocratic and separatist demand of Pakistan.” (17) Nevertheless, the real culprit had to be imperialism. Alongside upholding “Muslim self-determination,” Joshi castigated the Mountbatten Plan to divide the subcontinent as a “desperate move against the freedom movement which,” in his opinion, stood “for the complete independence of the whole of the country.” (18). However, Joshi’s main concern was not partitioning religious lines and their probable consequences. Instead, he was concerned that the British would retain their influence through “new forms of indirect rule,” particularly Pakistan. (19) It was only Dutt who unambiguously stated that the looming partition would be “disastrous for Indian progressive development,” encouraging “particularism, reaction and communal antagonism” instead. (20)

Joshi counselled that it was “only through utmost vigilance against reaction and a steadfast adherence to democratic policies” that the “exploited Muslim masses of Pakistan areas [could] achieve their real objective of freedom, democracy and prosperity.” (21) He called upon them to “defeat the selfish and reactionary policies of their upper classes.” (22) In what amounted to a declaration of political bankruptcy, the party insisted on the eve of independence that only the “upper classes” had wielded the “poisonous weapon of preaching communal hatred” to disrupt the “natural [!] process of unity” of exploited Muslims and non-Muslims. (23)

In June 1947, with riots spreading over much of North India in the runner-up to the great bloodshed in Punjab, these postulates sounded absurd.

Adhikari rejoiced in late 1946 that “the shame of Noakhali and Tippera [Bengal districts badly affected by communal rioting] is being wiped out in the fighting unity of the Hindu and Muslim kisans in the battle for Tebhaga,” a peasant campaign in Bengal for an increase in the cultivators’ share of the harvest. (24)  It certainly was no coincidence that the centers of the new wave of labor unrest often lay in areas badly affected by communal violence, such as Calcutta and rural Bihar. Nevertheless, it was on externalizing Western lines that communist reception and assessment of the massacres accompanying the partition—becoming reality together with India’s and Pakistan’s independence on 15 August 1947—developed.

Not even the most horrifying atrocities could unsettle communist theorising. An account by a prominent Punjab organiser—probably future General Secretary Ajoy Kumar Ghosh—is a particularly good example. Writing under the telling alias Dhanwantari (the doctor of gods in Ayurvedic medicine), the author drew up a ghastly picture of the situation in the province: “What happened in Punjab cannot be called a riot. It was a regular war of extermination of the minorities” driven by “passions” and the “frenzy and savagery” of communal mobs. Among them were “trained bands equipped with firearms, modern weapons,” the “storm troops of the various communal parties.” (25). Following this lurid exposition, his report’s mainstay consisted of detailing British “devilish skill,” allegedly responsible for ruining Punjab’s ostensibly harmonious communal relations “overnight” and engineering the involvement of government organs in the bloodshed. (26)

The Punjab CPI rationalised the atrocities into conspiracy theories: Certain concrete “enemies” were operating with “a definite plan and a definite motive.” (27).  Far from being involved if only as consenting bystanders, the broad population were mere victims of the “most diabolical plan against our people” unfolding in Punjab. Its “leader, inspirer and organiser” was British imperialism; its aides “the Princes and big landlords.” Their aim was “to overawe the Government, to silence and even physically wipe out the forces of progress.” (28). Other party sections, such as the UP unit, seconded the scheme of grand conspiracy: Although Punjab was the victim of the “maddest and most immense communal frenzy ever known,” it was as incorrect as it was “unjust to fix the responsibility for communal frenzy and bloodshed on the common people themselves, whether Muslim, Sikh or Hindu.” The instigators were imperialists, landlords, princes, black marketeers, and the “communal leaders” supported by all of them. (29)

According to this absurd logic, Pakistan itself was ultimately a British project. In 1948 Pathans revolted in Waziristan and the NWFP. While the party pamphlet reproduced the insurgents’ demand to convert Pakistan into a sharia state without further comment, it castigated the repressive stance adopted by Pakistani authorities as contrived by British imperialism. (30)

There was no dearth of reports about communists falling victim to fanaticised mobs. In 1947, Ajoy Kumar Ghosh eluded death only by chance when fanatical Muslims attacked his train to Lahore and massacred the passengers. A December 1947 circular of the East Punjab unit listed numerous comrades who had gone missing. (31)

In a letter to Ranadive from February 1948, Ramesh Chandra, a trade union organiser from Lahore, described the agony: Having opted to stay in Pakistan to disprove the communalists, he had discovered that conditions were beyond even his worst imaginations. After bringing his family to Delhi, he had returned to continue trade union work but soon found that even moving freely was a luxury:

Whereas one can move about to a certain extent, it is not possible for a non-muslim to do any mass work […] the position was such that I should not even attend the delegates meeting of the West Pakistan TU Federation. My comrades think that the atmosphere was such that my name should not be proposed for the General Council [….] I am now completely demoralised. (32)

Chandra’s letter closed with a request for transfer to Delhi. His experience was replicated in many East Pakistan areas, where the predominantly Hindu CPI unit could not reach out to the Muslim population. Its sullen pretension of “definitely anti-communal sentiments of the masses” would stultify itself in 1950, when most Hindu party members had to flee the communal riots and settle in West Bengal. (33)

From 1948, the CPI would accuse the Indian government of being an accomplice in the imperialist and communal game to weaken the people by partitioning the country. (34)  This has become the staple view in the Indian left since. Joshi assessed in 1951 that the “party of the proletariat was too weak” and,” too “immature to play any effective role” in the course of events. However, his claim that the CPI had ever been “the honest broker between the warring Congress and League leaderships” was a platitude. (35) This very text of Joshi also exhibits an unusual degree of frankness on the CPI’s failed advances to the broad population before and during partition. The absurd drama rudely ended at the 1948 party congress with his ouster on the grounds of “reformism.”

1. “On Pakistan and National Unity,” 463

2. P. C. Joshi, “They Must Meet Again,” in Documents 4:387–8, 390

3. “The New Situation and Our Tasks,” in Documents 5:83–4

4. Interview of Jawarhalal Nehru by Z. A. Ahmad, 2–3.

5. Braunthal, History of the International 3:144–81

6. Surjeet, “Introduction,” in Documents 1:L–LIII

7. Roy, Tathagata/ The Countdown: Politics Of Bengal Between the Two Partitions, 1905-1947

8.Interview of Jawarhalal Nehru by Z. A. Ahmad, 2–3

9. E Balakrishnan, History of the Communist Movement in Kerala

10. Home, Pol/1942 F 226 of NAI

11. Sanyal, Sunanda and Basu, Soumya /The Sickle and the Crescent: Communists, Muslim League and India’s Partition

12. Sunanda and Basu, The Sickle and the Crescent: Communists, Muslim League and India’s Partition, 113–52

13. Chatterjee, Chhanda/ Syama Prasad Mookerjee, The Hindu Dissent and the Partition of Bengal, 1932-1947

14. E Balakrishnan, History of the Communist Movement in Kerala

15. Joshi, “For the Final Bid for Power,” 130–3.

16. Dutt, Freedom for India, PCJ 1946/1, 7.

17. Adhikari, Resurgent India at the CrossRoads. 1946 in Review, PCJ 1947/5, 1, 8

18. Dutt, “The Mountbatten Plan For India,” Labour Monthly 29/July (1947):212

19. Political Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India, June 1947,” in Documents 5:353–4.

20. Dutt, “The Mountbatten Plan.”

21. Political Resolution of the Central Committee,” 361

22. Ibid., 361–2.

23. August 15. To the People of Pakistan. Communist Party’s Appeal, PCJ CPI 1947a, 1.

24. Sarkar, Modern India, 438–41; EMS Namboodiripad, A History of Indian, 511–14

25. Dhanwantri, “Beware!,” in Documents 5:371

26. Ibid., 371–81.

27. Save Punjab Save India. Statement of the Punjab Committee of the Communist Party on the Present Punjab Situation, PCJ 1947/8, 1–2.

28. ibid., 3–5.

29. In the Name of Freedom, Honor and Bread. United Provinces Shall not Go the Punjab Way, PCJ CPI 101, 2, 4

30. Who Rules Pakistan?, PCJ 1948/6, 7

31. WBIB File 35/26(i) SL 180/1926 pt. I, 101

32. Letter from Ramesh Chandra (Lahore) to B. T. Ranadive (Bombay), WBIB File 35/26(i) SL 180/1926 pt. I, 160–2

33. “Exodus of Minority from E. Pakistan to W. Bengal,” People’s Age, November 28, 1948

34. India and Pakistan, ed. by Rammanohar Lohia, Ashok Mehta, and Jayaprakash Narayan (Patna: Socialist Party Publ. 1950), 1

35. Joshi, Documents for Discussion: Problems of the Mass Movement, PCJ CPI 229, 11.

Courtesy – Hamlet in Monsoon )

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