Indian Independence: A Revolution lost

In this article we summarise British rule in India and examine the main and most influential political characters, which eventually led to India being broken up, at Partition as it became known. Partition could have been avoided had it not been for the failure of the Communist Party of India (CPI) to provide the revolutionary leadership required. Partition, which was the final outcome of British imperialism’ manoeuvres, led to an immense bloodbath, a historical crime against the peoples of the subcontinent.

In 1947 India and Pakistan became independent from British Rule. It is a well-known event and is commonly understood as marking the end of the British Empire and its colonies, an archetypal triumph of good over evil. However, little is known of the real story of Indian freedom, of the unpopularity of Gandhi and his real interests. The capitulation of India’s representatives to the forcible breakup of the country and the influence that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had on the direction Indian people really wanted to take the independence movement. We examine here British India and the Indian independence movement from a class perspective.

The Beginning of the British Raj and British Rule in India

The British interest in India began with the discontent of British merchants towards the increase in the price of a pound of pepper by 5 shillings, which was levied by Dutch merchants, who had exclusive monopoly on the spice trade. In response to this, 24 of these incensed merchants gathered in London, on 24th September 1599, to found a trading firm which became known as the East India Company. They eventually arrived in India on 24th August 1600 to start doing business.

At that time, Mughal Emperor Jahangir was richer, grander and ruled over a larger population than Queen Elizabeth I. However, failure by the native ruling class to develop the means of production meant that India over a period would fall behind economically, which would subsequently lead to its conquest.

It should be understood that initially the aims of the East India Company were merely to establish safe and secure trade with the subcontinent. They did not arrive intending to conquer India. These initial aims were met, and met well, because they dovetailed the interests of India’s rulers. The success of their trading was impressive and rapid. However their profits suffered occasional disruption due to the squabbling of the petty sovereigns under whose territories they operated. The East India Company, growing in wealth, was thus compelled to take an interest in local politics and to actively intervene. With Britain’s ascension over India, the East India Company would find that sweeping away the native rulers would be more profitable than trying to manage them. Thus in 1757 Robert Clive began the conquest of India proper:

“India for Britain’s upper classes became a romantic legend and in the words of historian James S Mills ‘[india] was a vast system of outdoor relief for Britain’s upper classes’.”

However, for the toiling masses, life in India remained miserable; many would die of malaria or other tropical diseases, if not on the battlefield. In 1857, one hundred years after Robert Clive’s invasion, the first major resistance to British rule in India took place. This was known as the First Indian War of Independence. This early rebellion came as a blessing in disguise for Britain, as its crushing defeat meant a further consolidation of British rule.

The failure of the native Indian ruling class to develop the means of production and technology meant that their defeat was inevitable. The stagnation of India’s mode of production was further compounded by the native ruler’s retreat into obscurantism. This was further spurred on as a reaction to British imperialism in the subcontinent. In other words, they shunned new ideas and ways of doing things in order to protect Indian tradition and culture from the influence of Britain. New technology, which was being developed rapidly in Europe, was seen as some foreign evil by the Indian ruling class. An example of this was shown when the guns being used by the Indians in their revolt of 1857 were over two centuries old.

From a Marxist standpoint we can see that the failure of the First Indian War of Independence was a natural consequence of the superiority of British capitalism against the far less advanced Indian mode of production.

Between 1857-59, during the time of the war, Marx and Engels wrote a series of articles published in the New York Daily Tribune. The point was made in these publications that every mile of railway laid down by British imperialism would create the basis of its own demise, generalising that colonial rule was developing the mode of production in India and thus giving birth to the proletariat. This strengthening of the Indian working class would lead to the demise of the British Raj. It goes without saying that this was not the aim of the British, but rather, that the railways were only built to more efficiently extract their plunder from the subcontinent. Such economic development would nonetheless have unforeseen effects.

In 1853 Marx summed up the state of British India in his article, “The Future Results of British Rule in India”:

“...If we knew nothing of the past history of Hindustan would there not be the one great incontestable fact that even at this moment India is held in English thraldom by an Indian army maintained at the cost of India?...

“England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and laying the material foundations of western society in Asia.

“Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Moghuls, who had successively overrun India, soon became Hindu-ised, the barbarian conquerors being by an eternal law of history, conquered themselves by the superior civilisation of their subjects. The British were the first conquerors superior in culture and therefore inaccessible to Hindu civilisation. They destroyed it by breaking up the native communities, by uprooting the native industry and levelling all that was great and elevated in the native society. The historical pages of British rule in India report hardly anything beyond that destruction. The work of regeneration, however, hardly transpires through a heap of ruins. Nevertheless it has begun.

“The political unity of India, more consolidated than it ever was under the great Mughals, was the first condition of regeneration. That unity imposed by the British sword will now be strengthened and perpetuated by the electric telegraph. The day is not far distant when, by combination of railway and steam vessels the distance between England and India measured by time will be shortened. The ruling classes of Great Britain have had till now but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the money-ocracy wanted to plunder it the milli-ocracy to undersell it… Nowhere more than in India do we meet with social destitution in the midst of natural plenty, for the want of the means of exchange … The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies where it goes naked… Did they not in India, to borrow an experience of that great robber Lord Clive himself, resort to atrocious extortion and still simple corruption could not keep pace with their rapacity.”

During the British Raj there were many incidents of barbarism, among the most notorious of which was the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. On the 13 April 1919, in a closed park in the heart of the city, was a peaceful protest rally. Amongst those in attendance were pilgrims for Vaishakhi (a religious and local state festival). All were civilians and all were unarmed. The only entrance was a small alleyway in between two buildings. Brigadier Dyer marched to the park with 50 men, placed them at either side of this entrance and, without warning, opened fire on the gathering crowd. The soldiers shot for 10 minutes while the trapped Indians screamed for mercy. In the end 1516 were killed or wounded in the onslaught, after which Dyer refused medical help to the victims because he didn’t want anything to take away from his ‘military victory’. He would also go on to tell his superiors he faced a ‘revolutionary army’ rather than innocent civilians. In actual fact, the brigadier was enforcing a recently passed ban on protesting, that many people were also unaware of.

Gandhi at the time, said about the victims, “They were neither martyrs nor heroes” and, along with Nehru, would later go on to condemn the assassination of O’Dwyer, the incumbent Lieutenant Governor of Punjab during the massacre.

Brigadier Dyer was reprimanded for his actions and was made to resign from the army. He was however able to return to Britain with a full pension and benefits while simultaneously earning £26,000. This latter money was collected for him by his admirers so as to ease his early retirement.

The massacre was a turning point in British-Indian relations. It was under the pressure of this massacre that Gandhi was compelled to launch the ‘Quit India’ movement. His position prior to Jallianwala Bagh was simply to work out a better deal with imperialism.

The Congress Party

The Indian political system that emerged from the Raj period was set up along British Parliamentary lines. This new breed of Indian politicians came from the former ruling dynasties as well as the middle and ruling classes of the time. They were educated in British universities, chiefly Oxford and Cambridge, and were taught British customs and culture.

The Indian National Congress (or Congress Party) was the most finished product of the British indoctrination of the Indian elite. It was described described by historians Collins and Lapierre:

“A dignified English civil servant founded Congress in 1885. Acting with the blessing of the Viceroy, Octavian Hume had sought to create an organisation which would canalise the protests of India’s slowly growing educated classes into a moderate, responsible body prepared to engage in gentlemanly dialogue with India’s English rulers.”

There are many examples of the true nature of the Congress Party, such as the instance in which they had written a letter expressing servitude towards England and in passing a party resolution in 1918 declaring total allegiance to the crown. They collaborated with British imperialism completely. The statement of Congress politician Sir Satendra Sinha personifies Congress’s subservience:

“It is the task of India that at this difficult and delicate juncture of history it should prove its gratitude and thankfulness to the Great British nation. This nation leading us for 150 years has acquainted us with civilisation and culture.”

Whilst the party was mainly made up of right-wing and bureaucratic elements, such as Gandhi, Congress did have a left reformist element as well reflecting the complex social composition of the party. Leaders such as Nehru openly called themselves Fabian Socialists but the false sincerity of this left cover stands revealed in the way in which such leaders capitulated to Partition.

It is also worth noting that Stalin claimed in the 1920s that Congress and Gandhi were playing a progressive role in the Indian Revolution. At the same time, in 1920, Congress came out against a textile workers’ strike as the bosses of the factories involved were huge financers of the party. Gandhi himself is on record as describing strikes as, “Bolshevik type lawlessness” and, contrary to popular belief fostered by both the mainstream left and right, the Indian bourgeoisie never fought a freedom struggle. They negotiated and bargained the struggle of the masses with the British and were never with the Indian people in their struggles, in the first place.


Gandhi and Mountbatten drink teaGandhi drinking tea with Lord MountbattenGandhi in particular was vehemently anti-Marxist and had this to say about the ownership rights of capitalists and landlords:

“I will never be a participant in snatching away the properties from their owners and you should know that I will use all my influence and authority against the class war. If somebody wants to deprive you from your property you will find me standing shoulder to shoulder with you.”

Gandhi was an appeaser of imperialism and had a good relationship with the Viceroys. His position for a long time was to fight to reform imperialism, not remove it. In so doing, Gandhi developed such a relationship of trust with the Viceroy’s that Lord Irwin, writing to his father in 1931 whilst he still held office, said:

“I kept asking myself all the time was the man completely sincere? I came to have no doubt that if Mr Gandhi gave me his word on any point, the word was always secured and that I could trust him implicitly.”

Also, the next Viceroy Lord Willingdon wrote in the same year:

“I have had my first talk with Gandhi and we renewed our acquaintance of many years ago. He was at the top of his form, most friendly and most eager to co-operate with me. Indeed no one could be more desirous to be helpful. But the trouble of it all is that he has roused this movement of civil disobedience and having done so, I am much afraid he cannot control it…”

One particularly beastly act of Gandhi’s treachery occurred with the incident of the Garhwal rifles. In 1922 Hindu soldiers refused to open fire on an anti-imperialist demonstration by Muslims. Gandhi condemned this act of non-violence saying that:

“When a soldier refuses to fire then he is guilty of betraying his oath. I can never advise soldiers to defy the orders of officers because, if tomorrow I form a government, I will have to use the same soldiers and officers. If today I advise them for any defiance then tomorrow they can also refuse to obey my orders.”

Nehru, the first prime minister of India and leader of the Congress party, had an even better relationship with the Viceroys. This can be seen during his capitulation to the forces of partition leading up to independence.

Unlike Stalin, Leon Trotsky had no illusions whatsoever in Gandhi and stated that he would play no revolutionary role to play in the independence of India. In a series of articles in the 30’s Trotsky expressed his viewpoint as follows:

“There is ferment amongst millions in India. With their own methods they have demonstrated their strength in such a way, that the national bourgeoisie has gone quiet. This bourgeoisie has reluctantly entered the field of activity mainly to blunt the rising tide of the revolutionary movement. Gandhi’s weak, static and lethargic resistance movement was such a fetter that it had subdued the innocent and scattered the petty bourgeoisie by the deceit and treachery of the cunning liberal bourgeoisie. The more Gandhi was sincere to his cause the more he would’ve controlled the revolting masses and the more he would have become an instrument for the interests of his masters.”

Later on Trotsky writes:

“We must expose the treacheries and deception of Gandhism in front of the colonial peoples. The main aim of Gandhism is to water down the burning revolutionary fires amongst the people and to continue their exploitation for the petty interests of the national bourgeoisie.”

And again later on Trotsky writes:

“The Indian bourgeoisie can never lead a revolutionary struggle. It is the slave of British capitalism and is fully reliant on it. It has gone mad in its quest to protect its properties. It is terrified of the people. It wants to come to an agreement with British Imperialism no matter at what price. It is singing lullabies of hopes of reforms to the masses. The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. He is an artificial leader and a false prophet.”

The British rulers, and their local representatives in the form of Gandhi and Congress, had the common aim of preventing the independence struggle spilling  over into class struggle in order to maintain bourgeois rule. Time would demonstrate that they would do so at any cost.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the man who is given credit for founding Pakistan, was just the same as any typical Congress leader, with the only meaningful difference being that he represented the Muslim bourgeoisie. Jinnah was described as a conservative in the mode of Gladstone. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Jinnah was the most anglicised leader of the whole independence struggle and barely a Muslim. His lifestyle, dress and attitude were all that of the British and the only Muslim thing about him was his parents’ religion. He drank, ate pork, religiously shaved his beard each morning and just as religiously avoided the mosque each Friday. Gandhi, his political foe, knew more verses of the Qur’an then he did. Christina Lamb had this to say about Jinnah:

“In fact were Jinnah alive today, he could be flogged under Pakistan’s strict Islamic laws. A cold nationalist who disliked religion and politics mixing and who, right up to the mid 1930’s claimed he was an Indian first and a Muslim second, Jinnah saw in the Mullah’s slogans the route to safeguard both his own future and that of the Muslim landowning elite.”

Similar to Congress, Jinnah never actually contemplated a complete break with the British. In negotiations with Lord Mountbatten in April 1947 Jinnah had said:

“I do not care how little you give me so long as you give it to me completely. I do not wish to make any improper suggestion to you, but you must realise the new Pakistan is almost certain to ask for dominion status with the British Empire.”

In fact, up until 1940 Jinnah and even Muslim hardliners were dismissing the idea of Pakistan. At a parliamentary joint select committee Muslim leaders, including Jinnah, described a separate Muslim state as, “Only a student’s scheme, chimerical and impractical”.

It was not that Jinnah’s position was changing leading up to partition, but rather that the opportunity for the creation of Pakistan did not really present itself until the dawn of Indian independence. This opportunity initially manifested itself due to a press conference blunder by Nehru but was only ratified with the mutual agreement and efforts of the British whose sole intentions were to defend their own interests, firstly, by fighting the threat of global Bolshevism and then, secondly, in order to guarantee their imperialist plunder even after independence.

Bhagat Singh and the Proletarian Movement

bhagat singh 1929Since the beginning of the independence movement, the class struggle has been present, at times threatening to get out of the control of its leaders. The stronger the movement of the workers and peasants got the more the local bourgeoisie and the British worked together to divert it along safe channels.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the experiences brought back by Indian soldiers in World War One were a profound turning point in the Indian struggle for independence. After witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution and mixing with soldiers, their fellow workers in uniform, from the European armies, the country was enthused by socialist ambition. Even religious leaders such as Maulana Hasrat Mohani were moved radically to the left due to these events and Iqbal, a famous poet, called Karl Marx, “A prophet with a book (meaning Capital) but no prophethood.”  

The main expression of this radicalisation which took place can be seen through the experience of Bhagat Singh and its crystallization around the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Army in the late 1920’s.

The adventures of Bhagat Singh and his comrades are the stuff of legend but one of the most significant chains of events during this time was sparked by the assassination of a policeman in retaliation for beating Lala Lajpat Jai, a young revolutionary, to death. It was believed that Bhagat Singh and his comrades had been involved in this killing but for a while it appeared as though they would get away with it.

Shortly after, they threw bombs at the empty treasury benches of the central legislative assembly in Delhi before throwing socialist leaflets around to the milling crowd that had gathered. Most of the comrades involved in this stunt were arrested, many of whom went on hunger strike to protest the terrible conditions they suffered in prison. As publicity grew, the strike won their demands for clean food and clothing but due to the strains and trauma of the experience one comrade, Jatin Das, died after 63 days of fasting. Although their demands had been won, Jatin’s mental state had deteriorated to such a degree that he did not recognise the victory and kept the strike going until his death.

The intention of Bhagat Singh’s stunt at the treasury benches was to use the platform gained by the trail to voice socialist ideas to the masses. His eloquence and charisma earned him great popularity, support and media focus and such was the sympathy for Bhagat Singh that the witnesses during the trial began to turn against the prosecution. Even a British policeman, in an inspiring show of class solidarity transcending national and racial lines, refused to identify Bhagat at the scene of the murder.

As a result of these events, the government issued the Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance 1930 which dispensed with the need for a defence counsel, defence witnesses and the presence of the accused. Here we can see bourgeois society doing away with its own laws and concepts of morality and justice in order to nakedly pursue its own interests. All of the claptrap about trying to civilise and educate primitive, savage people can no longer be sustained when the class struggle intensifies.

The trial lasted a total of five months with the judgement being announced on the 7 October 1930. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were sentenced to hanging “until death”. Gandhi could have made a plea for clemency in his negotiations with Viceroy Irwin to save their lives, but instead, he decided to do nothing for fear of the movement that they represented. Bhagat Singh reacted to the verdict with bravery, asking to be shot as a prisoner of war instead of hung as a common criminal. Bhagat Singh’s outlook began as ultra-left but it grew throughout his life, eventually arriving at a Marxist position. His death row diary explains the evolution of his thinking. He started out as an ultra-left with some anarchist tendencies but eventually arrived at a Marxist position through his experience of the Indian Independence struggle. This diary makes for an interesting read and an invaluable resource for those studying the movement today.

The Role of the CPI    

The Communist party of India (CPI) should have been able to take advantage of the revolutionary situation which was developing, but, due to its incorrect theories and misguided outlook, it failed to offer any alternative leadership to the independence movement leaving it in the hands of the bourgeois parties.

The CPI was founded in India in 1925, although it’s embryo was developing as early as 1919 and 1920, with circles being set up in Berlin and Tashkent. The main theoretician of the party at the time was Manebendra Nath Roy (M N Roy). Although he spent much time exiled from India he did go on to play a leading role in establishing the CPI.

LIke many in the colonial world at that time, M N Roy began his political life as a revolutionary nationalist. It was the experience of the Russian Revolution, the development of the Communist International and its impact on the national liberations struggles around the world which drew him and others towards Marxism. Although some of his positions were more or less correct in their approach, as were those of some of the other comrades, tragically, the party would never come to a fully worked out Marxist position. The CPI contained many intelligent and well educated members, some of whom were scholars, but it was never able to live up to the tasks which were placed before it by history.

The Party as a whole were generally politically confused. For example, M Singeravelu at the first party conference gave a presidential address which was fluent but with strong nationalist overtones. Similarly Hasrat Mohani, the chair of the same conference, projected Islam as being “even more egalitarian than the communist programme’.

More worrying still was the CPI’s hesitation to align themselves with Bolshevism as they cowered from the imperialist and nationalist propaganda against Communism. This stance was especially ridiculous at a time when interest for socialist ideas in India was at its peak. There was already a marked difference in the intensity and ferocity of state repression against the CPI compared to the bourgeois leaders of independence who were, as mentioned earlier, working alongside their british masters. M N Roy, amongst others, was critical against this soft stance but nevertheless the party ignored him.

In their repression against the CPI the British made many legal cases against them, of which two gained mass publicity. The first was the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case in 1924 which unsurprisingly demonstrated another mockery of so-called British democratic values. Here is an extract from the trial:

“The accused are charged under section 121a with conspiracy to establish a branch organisation of the communist international throughout British India, with objective to deprive the King Emperor of the sovereignty of British India…”

The result of the case was that four of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to four years imprisonment. However, in spite of the attempts of the British to suppress the movement and the party, the publicity of the case gained a great deal of solidarity in Britain and across Europe. Funds were even raised internationally to support those on trial.

The impression which communist ideas had on the Indian people was strong. India was, and still is, fertile breeding ground for revolutionary communist ideas.  Communist groups were springing up across the whole of India, but the difficulties for the early communist movement were immense. The confusion in the political line of the party, the repression and arrests of its cadres, trained and sent from Tashkent, and the degeneration of the Communist International meant many left the movement over time. Indians did not have the benefit of a Lenin or a Trotsky and whilst a mass Communist Party did develop through the movement, it was never able to consolidate itself around a Marxist programme that would have allowed it to successfully lead the revolution.

The Upsurges   

At the beginning of the 20th century there were two major upsurges against the British Raj which had an undeniably proletarian character. The first upsurge was in the period of 1919-1922. The second, more militant upsurge, began in 1926. By 1927 there were 129 strikes across India. Between 1928-1929 alone, 209 strikes were held including a mass general strike that lasted from 26 April to 6 October 1928. The Workers and Peasants Party (WPP, which was the main legal front organisation of the CPI at the time) played a leading role during this 2nd upsurge. During the entire period there was also a marked increase in the frequency of armed conflict with the British forces which included an explosion on a train Viceroy Irwin was travelling on. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gandhi, and his doctrine of peaceful resistance, was by now very unpopular.

The 2nd biggest case brought against the CPI, the Meerut Conspiracy Case, was organised in response to their role during the 2nd upsurge, which terrified the British Imperialists. Like the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case, it was an attempt to jail the leadership of the CPI. The trial began in June 1929 and ended in January 1933. 31 of the CPI’s leaders were arrested for this trial with 27 of them being sentenced to terms of imprisonment varying from three years to life. All but four managed to escape punishment. Among those found guilty were Philip Spratt and Benjamin Frances Bradley who had come from England to work for the CPI. Both were sentenced to transportation for 10 years.

During the course of the trial, the CPI had been able to evoke considerable national sympathy amongst the masses and to use this platform to propagate Communist ideas. The chief justice observed:

“They took an inordinately long time in reading out well-prepared statements, which the court had to take down word for word. In most cases they had nothing more than an exposition, on an elaborate scale, of the doctrines of communism, its tenets and its programme.”

As a result of the sympathy they inspired, and the movement which had developed in support of them, all prisoners were released by the autumn of 1935.

A marked difference in the strength of government repression came as a direct result of the massive support generated for the CPI from the Meerut trial. A Bombay textile union was repeatedly attacked. Leading trade unionists and even more Communists were arrested in the resulting crackdown. A riots enquiry committee and a strike enquiry committee were appointed to remove Communists from the trade unions. Saumyendrenath Tagore, a member of the CPI who would go on to found the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI), wrote in his pamphlet ‘Historical Development’:

“Nothing made so much propaganda in India for communism as the Meerut Conspiracy Case. The entire attention of political India was focused on this case and hundreds of radical youth were drawn to the Communist party because of it. There was also a good bit of propaganda in the international press. One can say with justice that the Meerut conspiracy case placed communism on a sure footing in India.”

The failures and betrayal of the CPI

If we look at the conditions of the time, and the ferment which was taking place in society, the CPI should have been able to take the lead in the independence movement. But, in spite of the struggle and sacrifices of the working class, the CPI was unable to connect to the revolutionary mood which had developed.

One of the explanations given quite often by the Stalinist leaders is that the repression itself prevented the CPI taking a leading role and achieving victory. However, a Marxist organisation has to be able to build itself on the basis of showing the best way to fight such repression.

We have given a number of examples above of times when this was done. Where the trials and repression against the party were used to galvanize support for the ideas of Communism. In other words the explanation for the failure of the CPI must exist elsewhere.

From its inception, the party was theoretically confused and did not have the time to work out a clear position. Further problems were to arise when Stalin consolidated his grip over the Comintern, however, at which point the CPI, like the other sections of the International, slowly submitted themselves to the whims of the Moscow elite. It was at this point that the CPI sacrificed the future of the Indian Revolution. Essentially, the unwillingness of the CPI to fight for a socialist revolution lead to the defeat of the movement and ultimately to the crimes of Partition. This was a betrayal of the Indian people on the part of the CPI, which , towards the end of the 1920’s, subordinated its policy to the interests of the the Soviet bureaucracy.

The decade of the 1930’s marked a period of steep decline for the CPI. Although some leaders and activists of the party resisted the policy twists and turns of the Stalinists, most of them were eliminated during this time and replaced with those more pliant. M N Roy was expelled from the Comintern in 1929 and, unable to find his way to the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky, he ended his political career a broken man. He gave up on Communism completely and ended up writing “The Radical Humanist Manifesto”.

The violent swings between ultra-leftist madness and rank opportunism dictated by Moscow, created similar confusion in the ranks of the CPI. From the 1930’s onwards, the CPI indulged in veering between policies which isolated themselves from the mass independence movement whilst at the same time turning towards other reformist capitulations, liquidating the party into the movement at times.

An example of the latter can be seen in the CPI’s ‘Draft Programme of Action’. This called for, amongst other things, a reduction on trade and rent on peasants, appropriation of the landed estates of the feudal lords, the properties of the ruling British elite and their major foreign assets. These were not the demands of a socialist revolution but were rather bourgeois democratic measures. By copycatting Congress, at times,  the CPI lost support. This was not only because the party lost its radical allure but also because their mindless U-turns were a recipe for disillusionment. Doubly frustrating to the cadres were the occasions in which the CPI, after having lost the initiative in leading the independence movement, refused to be involved at all when the movement was garnering mass support.

Missed Opportunities

After the defeats of the 1920s, and the consolidation of the Congress Party in a position of leadership over the independence movement, a new period began to open up. After a few years of lull, in the early to mid 1930s a new upsurge was developing in the country. Unfortunately, due to the confusion and disillusionment sown by the CPI, in the twists and turns of the previous period, it proved unable to take advantage of this. The Congress on the other hand found itself in a commanding position.

Due to the contradictions that existed in the independence movement, between the various classes within Indian society, the sheer amount of pressure which had built up over time and the dominance of Congress, fractures started to open up in the party. Previously soft left-wing currents inside Congress started to take on a more solid form and even the phenomenon of centrism can be seen emerging. Marxists define centrism as a political tendency in the workers’ movement hovering between reformism and revolutionary Marxism, and it is just such a phenomenon which we can begin to see during this time. Under the hammer blows of events, sections of the Congress party were being dragged into the realm of the class struggle and being forced to take a lead in the growing revolutionary mood.

In 1934 this took on an organised form with the setting up of a socialist caucus within the Congress Party calling itself the Congress Socialist Party (CSP). With leaders such as Jai Prakash Narayan, Basowon Singh and Acharya Narendra Deva this was a group with varied ideas and traditions which ran the gamut between those who argued the case for armed struggle against the British to achieve socialism to those who were more inspired by the ideas of British Fabianism. Many people were drawn to the lead which was being offered by the CSP as, in spite of its diffuse nature, it seemed to offer a genuine alternative to the collaborationism of the mainstream Congress leaders.

In the case of such a movement developing, where masses are being drawn into a revolutionary direction it would be the duty of Marxists to intervene, to get involved in order to win people over to their ideas. The prerequisite for this would be to intervene under one’s own banner, not to muddy the waters by hiding one’s ideas or cosying up to the leaders. Whilst the CPI did go into the CSP they did so in a thoroughly opportunist manner, politically dissolving and not differentiating themselves from the other tendencies which were clearly visible inside the formation. This was a recipe for disaster as, with Centrism being a fluid phenomenon, with many contradictions inherent in it, it was only a matter of time before these needed to be resolved. Either this would be done with the winning of the masses to revolutionary Marxism or the conflicts would become too big and the centrist grouping would collapse into different competing groups. This is exactly what happened in 1939 when the CSP dissolved, splitting up in various directions. Some of these groups went on to set up new political parties.

Nonetheless, the experience of centrism in India in the 1930s demonstrated the continued relevance and strength of the workers’ movement. In 1938 comrades iof the CPI, working within the CSP, were able to mobilise 50,000 workers in a demonstration in Calcutta under the slogan of “For A Workers’ Socialist Republic”. Also, a Kisan Sabha (Peasants Conference) was organised later on in the year in which 500,000 peasants registered attendance. Even after more than a decade of betrayals and confusion on the part of the leaders, the Indian people were still looking for a revolutionary way out of the chaos and destruction caused by imperialism.

Subhas Chandra Bose

There were also other allies for the CPI on the left of the Congress Party such as Subhas Chandra Bose. There was a strong desire for armed struggle against the British. Some of this was expressed around the CSP, but a group also organised around Bose and his allies. Such was the strength of feeling in the party that Bose himself was able to win the presidency of Congress twice, including in 1939 when he defeated Gandhi’s preferred candidate. This further exacerbated the splits within Congress and Bose himself, during the course of World War Two, would go on to leave the party and set up the Indian National Army, which allied itself with Imperial Japan to fight for independence from the British.

This was a time when there was a strong possibility for the left wing of Congress to form an alliance with the CPI based on their joint anti-war position and a militant fight against the British. This could have led to a socialist conclusion of the independence struggle.

Sadly the alliance and its socialist conclusions were never to be. Further turns in the CPI’s policy and the dissolution of the Centrist currents would lead to an even more divided movement.

The CPI During the War

The anti-war position of the CPI leading up to 1941 was not a policy which was arrived at due to purely national considerations. Rather this was also dictated by the interests of the Soviet Bureaucracy in Moscow. After the Stalin-Hitler pact, when World War Two broke out in 1939, the CPI was waging an anti-war campaign that chimed with to the anti-imperialist sentiments of the time. They argued for non-cooperation with the British and their war effort. This was so effective that many strikes took place as part of this campaign. This included a one day general strike that boasted the participation of 90,000 workers.

Later on a 180 degree U-turn took place. In 1941 after Hitler attacked Russia, the CPI performed its most devastating change of course when it went on to fully co-operate with the British, even going so far as to help to recruit soldiers to fight against Hitler.  Nowhere did this volte-face manifest itself so ridiculously as when in 1942 a CPI leader, comrade Kushi Mohammed, gave a fiery anti-imperialist, anti-war speech. When his speech was at its peak of fervour he was passed a note, just delivered from the CPI’s high command in Moscow. He glanced at it and then made the point that, “As British democracy has formed an alliance with fatherland Russia, the main thrust of agitation and struggle has to be directed against the fascists”.

In this wholesale shift in approach the CPI went from being dissolved into the CSP to being absorbed into Congress. Whilst they should have been exposing the class interests of Gandhi and his party, and being persecuted for it, instead they went on to being released from jail, as a newly legalised party, receiving funding from the British, a reward for using their new voice to discourage strikes and desertions from the army and, as mentioned, recruit soldiers for the British. The CPI further developed a conciliatory attitude towards the bourgeoisie and even went as far as to hand over their trade unions to the Congress party.

Needless to say, the CPI’s change of heart towards the war led to a head-on clash with Dr Bose and the other left-wing and centrist groups around Congress which had previously identified with them. There was mass disillusionment of CPI supporters and members, and attacks on their offices. Naturally the isolation of the CPI led to even more support going to the Congress party.

The 1940’s and the naval rebellion

In the 1940’s, and particularly during 1946, the fervour for independence was at its peak and was by now uncontrollable. The Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, Field Marshal Auchinleck, in response to the revolutionary outbursts of 1946, had at one point written a telegram to the government saying, “…if you don’t grant them independence in three days, they will take it by force.”

Soldiers who had come back from WW2 were openly proclaiming and demanding India’s freedom. One important fightback against the British by Indian soldiers was the 1946 rebellion of the sailors of the British Indian Navy. What began as a peaceful hunger strike among the crew aboard one ship, the HMS Talwar, within 48 hours turned into the armed revolt of 20,000 sailors on 78 ships, and 20 bases on land. This was also accompanied by nationwide strikes by workers in solidarity with the sailors. A strike committee was formally set up by the sailors on the 2nd day of the revolt. A Muslim signalman, M S Khan, and a Sikh petty-officer, Madan Singh, were respectively elected president and vice-president unanimously. Their election was a conscious decision to condemn the religious divide being perpetuated by the Indian bourgeois leaders and the British.

In spite of the scale of this movement and the support it elicited amongst the masses, without a conscious revolutionary leadership, the struggle went down to defeat. Eventually the sailors surrendered. This was the last message of the strike committee:

“Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time the blood of uniformed and non-uniformed workers flowed in one current for the same collective cause. We the workers in uniform shall never forget this. The coming generations, learning its lessons shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live the revolution. INQUILAB ZINDABAD.”

While the British attacked the sailors with their Special Forces and their Air Force, Congress and the Muslim League attacked the sailors politically, making statement after statement condemning the action. Their contemptuous attitude can be summed up by Nehru’s relatively polite statement:

“What has happened clearly demonstrated how anti-social elements in a vast city like Bombay exploited a situation. Our freedom is near at hand today. We have all the virtues for winning freedom but I confess we lack discipline which is essential in a free country.”

Sardar Patel was less polite with his comment on the naval mutiny:

“Only a small band of insolent, hot headed and insane youngsters are trying to get involved in politics through these acts, when they have nothing to do with politics.”

Sardar Patel was right about one thing though: this was a movement of the youth. The CPI, although they apprehensively supported the rebellion, were no longer  in a leadership role in the liberation movement, so they were unable to intervene decisively to support the sailors.

The naval revolt terrified the British government as well as their local stooges, in the form of the Indian bourgeoisie, and it was the final blow to British confidence that they would be able to keep India as part of the empire. They were constantly wary of the risk that the movement they had done so much to divide along religious lines, would spill over into class struggle. All over the country the red flag was chosen as the symbol of uprising, including the symbol of the naval mutiny, and the final statement of the naval strike committee was unapologetically socialist. Shortly after this event Britain announced they would be leaving India before June 1948.

Clement Attlee, Labour’s great “socialist” Prime Minister of the time, had shown he was no different to his Tory predecessors. Incumbent at the time of the mutiny, he had ordered the uprising to be crushed. Moreover, British resolve to leave India divided can be attributed to this rebellion and its effect on the British ruling class. Atlee’s choice of Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, demonstrated further who Attlee truly stood for. Lord Mountbatten, who proved pivotal in pushing for partition, would have also been the Tories’ choice. Up until that time the only voices for partition came from the Muslim League and even then the most eccentric sections were raising demands of a more moderate character. They never really posed the question of complete sovereignty for India.

In spite of the successful efforts of the ruling elite to conjure sectarian hatred amongst the masses, there was still a great urge towards class unity. As well as the example of M S Khan and Madan Singh being elected as the representatives of the naval rebellion, it is worth noting that half of all armed forces personnel were Muslim. In 1946 Hindu and Muslim soldiers chose to fight shoulder to shoulder against their mutual oppressors. Muslim and Hindu workers were also setting up barricades together during strikes in the cities right up until 1946. The only way for these efforts to have borne fruit and the massacre avoided would have been to have linked these disparate struggles to the fight for socialism. Only a mass revolutionary party could have achieved such a thing, but it was just this factor that was missing from the whole process.

If the opportunity for revolution was obvious to the bourgeoisie, then it must have been painfully so to the rank and file of the CPI. The idea of transforming the national liberation struggle into a class one was generally accepted by the activists and young full-timers of the party. Evidence of this can be seen in the documents and minutes of the smaller more local conferences, aggregates and meetings. Khushwant Singh, a liberal writer, sums up the frustration of the foot soldiers of the CPI in his novel ‘Train to Pakistan’. He describes the state of mind of a CPI full timer, Iqbal Singh, who was sent to a village on the Indo-Pak border:

“Lying on a cot in the courtyard of the village Gurudwara, gazing at the stars he thought, ‘Everyone, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Congressite, Akali or Communist was deep in it. All that was needed was to divert the kill and grab instinct from communal channels and turn it against the propertied classes. That was the proletarian revolution, the easy way.’ To his anguish, the party bosses would not see it in this light.”

The genesis of Partition

The conquest of power by the working class in India and a move towards socialism would have ended Britain’s imperialist plunder. In response to the possibility of such an outcome the British had resolved to split India and her masses. The first stage of this partitioning of land was the partitioning of its people via communal hatred thus distracting the Hindustani masses from the class struggle. The same divide and rule strategy used to conquer India was again used to maintain its imperialist plunder. Despite the pledges which had been made by Labour, leading up to its election in Britain, the Attlee administration was just as committed to capitalism as their Tory predecessors and would continue to follow the same policies.

Although partition was widely accepted amongst the British elite as the plan for departure at this time, no elected representative of Britain had any precise plan for how to achieve this. The fact that it took until 1946, the year before independence itself, to settle on partition is proof of this. Britain on the one hand didn’t want a revolution but at the same time they also wanted to avoid the bloodshed that partition would bring as both outcomes would have disrupted their profits.

To execute their plan to partition India, the British government would have to send several diplomatic missions to the country. During these missions there were some feeble attempts to maintain order but all of these efforts would come to nought. The original plan that was settled on by the leaders, of the official independence movement, was the cabinet mission plan put forward in 1946. However the decision to make Lord Mountbatten Viceroy of India, and to give him carte blanché to act in Britain’s best interest without interference, undid all of the attempts by the Attlee government to provide some relief from the impending barbarism. The contradiction of these two approaches embodies the bankruptcy of Attlee and the entirety of Fabian socialist thought which superficially supports workers’ struggles yet inevitably falls on the side of the capitalists.

The cabinet mission plan proposed to split India into a federation of three states. It did not plan to create three individual countries. This was actually a retreat from the ideas of partition which were around at the time in favour of Congress’ position. Congress had always argued for the unity of India and, with Azad at the head of the party, they accepted this plan immediately. The Muslim League however took three days to agree to it with Jinnah claiming it was the best they could hope for.

The election of Jawaharlal Nehru to the Congress leadership would, however, scupper this agreement. Azad who had always opposed partition had actually appealed to his party to elect Nehru. In his memoirs he called it:

“Perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhi's words as one of Himalayan dimension.”

In July 1946 Nehru made a statement at a press conference in which he made the point that he would ignore the cabinet mission plan if need be. Nehru was pressured into this change of heart by Viceroy Mountbatten himself and it was at this press conference that the foundation stone of partition was laid. Azad describes Mountbatten changing Nehru’s position:

“Jawaharlal was not at first at all ready for the idea and reacted violently against the idea of partition. Lord Mountbatten persisted till Jawaharlal’s opposition was worn down step by step. Within a month of Mountbatten’s arrival in India, Jawaharlal, the firm opponent of partition had become, if not a supporter at least acquiescent to the idea. I have wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Lord Mountbatten. He is a man of principle but he is also impulsive and amenable to personal influences.”

The Muslim League had only tolerated the cabinet mission plan before but the surprise sentiment of Nehru offered the opportunity to challenge it. In response to Nehru’s statement, Jinnah had claimed that the degree of autonomy guaranteed to Pakistan in the cabinet mission plan would not be respected by the Hindu majority once they had power. It was therefore necessary, Jinnah argued, for Pakistan to have complete sovereignty lest they be held in thraldom to India. This was the justification Jinnah put before the masses for his rejection of the cabinet mission plan.

Congress however were slow to openly reject the cabinet mission plan for its gorier alternative. Nevertheless, the party did contain some influential advocates of partition, chief among them were Sardar Patel and Gandhi. Gandhi, like Nehru, originally stood for the unity of Hindustan but had switched sides after he was subjected to the Mountbatten charm. Sardar Patel was Congress’s biggest activist for partition and agreed to it even before Nehru did. Ironically Gandhi is often hailed as a crusader for unity, in most works on partition, but we can clearly see how false this is from Azad’s comments on Gandhi, in his book “India wins Freedom”:

“But when I met Gandhi again, I had the greatest shock of my life to find that he had changed. He was still not openly in favour of partition but he no longer spoke so vehemently against it. What surprised and shocked me even more was that he began to repeat the same arguments which Sardar Patel had already used. For over two hours I pleaded with him, but could make no impression on him.”

With the influence of all of the big players Congress was won over to partition, 29 voted for and 15 voted against. This was an abject surrender by the leadership of the independence movement although it had taken a while for the party’s full compliance.

One cannot deny the individual significance of Lord Mountbatten’s role but it is likely that Congress would have voted through partition regardless. The purpose of this would be to guarantee the survival of capital via the division of their class enemies and a party such as Congress, a party of capitalists, recognised their common interests with the imperialists. Partition can therefore be seen as inevitable under capitalism. While it is true that Mountbatten’s charm, and Congress’s subservience to their British masters, were strong elements, it is wholly incorrect to hold these factors entirely responsible for the decision. Ultimately, the voting majority of Congress had come to terms with its class interest.

Partition was indeed a bitter pill to swallow for the masses, but this only provides vivid proof of the fact that capitalism cannot even fight for a single meaningful sentiment, like the unity of one’s country. A third way between socialism and capitalism does not exist, either you accept capitalism and the totality of its barbarism or you accept Marxist conclusions.

In the vote of the All India Congress Committee, which was the last place for the resolution to be passed in Congress, the Hindu members from Sindh vehemently protested against partition. In response they were given all sorts of assurances about taking it out on the Muslim minority in India should they suffer any indignity. This was a savage concept that escalated tensions across the subcontinent. This idea of hostages and retaliation, against the Muslims in India and the Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, was the main source of fuel for the conflagration of sectarian massacres which swept the land.

The callousness of partition does not end here. Two decisions by Mountbatten perpetuated the ferocity of the massacre. Firstly, Attlee had fixed a period of 15 months for completing the transfer of power, but Mountbatten cut this down to 3 months. Pakistan was to come into existence on the 14th August 1947 with India gaining independence one day later on the 15th. Secondly, the precise border line written before the independence of each country was kept secret from India and Pakistan until after their inaugurations. The Kashmir conflict has its origins in these events with Kashmir being promised to both Nehru and Jinnah at different times.

Maybe Mountbatten genuinely believed arguments over the boundary held the potential to reverse partition or maybe that it would at least delay partition. Either way he felt the situation too urgent for his class to afford either a 15 month period to transfer power or a debate between Congress and the Muslim League over the border.

Punjab, known for being the best administered province in India, had found itself evacuated of state bodies during the massacre which was to ensue. The three month deadline offered little time for border localities to be properly policed and protected and no time for a peaceful exodus out of each country. The state was able to provide 50 Indian men simply to shoot down Indian families in a small park in Amritsar. Yet soldiers and police were withheld for the very purpose of their supposed existence, i.e. to maintain order and protect the people of their country.

Furthermore, the secret of the borderline meant that people were uncertain of whether they were living in India or Pakistan which made them afraid. This fear induced a strategy of preemptive attack, thus intensifying the savagery of the massacre. Mountbatten justified holding back information on the border, to politicians in London, stating that Indians should be given their “day of celebration” and said that, should they be disturbed with the most elementary and crucial information required for the governance of any country, “they [Indians] would never forgive us [England]”. A serial killer’s definition of celebration! What Mountbatten really meant was that the threat to Indian capital was too high to risk anything now. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man tasked with drawing the border, was haunted by this thought as he did so:

“I am going through this terrible job as well as I can… and it makes no difference because in the end, when I finish, they are all going to start killing each other anyway!”


The death toll of partition was between one and two million people. Everywhere the strong assaulted the weak. Among those killed in the massacre were innocent, illiterate peasants of all faiths, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, whose only life had been in the fields they worked. They didn’t know who a Viceroy was, they were indifferent to Congress and the Muslim League and had never bothered with issues such as partition or boundary lines. They were unaware of the “freedom” in whose name they were plunged into despair.

Partition was one of the most counter-revolutionary events in history. Understanding it dialectically, we can see it as an explosion of pressure built up over decades of struggle and as a prime example of the stark choice between socialism or barbarism. Socialism was the only solution that could have prevented partition and, for the bourgeoisie, partition was the only way to prevent socialism.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in spite of the rich history of lessons for the Indian labour movement, the Indian left remains split and confused. Thus the same problems which had disillusioned the Indian masses during the independence struggle, and kept the CPI isolated, are the same issues which plague the Communist movement today.

In particular, the present-day malaise of the Communist left can be linked to its continued marriage to the two stages theory, a failed theory which asserts that in the underdeveloped former colonial countries capitalist development must be allowed before the struggle for socialism can become possible. This utopian, as the economic conditions necessary for the development of socialism already exist on a world scale. The CPI, wedded to this failed theory, therefore has found itself, in and outside of office, having accepted capitalism and all the crises’ and scandals that go with it.

A proletarian victory in any one of the countries of the subcontinent today would be the spark that would ignite a blaze toppling capitalism in all the others. This would lead to the formation of a voluntary socialist federation of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the whole subcontinent which would start to heal the bloody wounds left behind by partition. We now have the responsibility of carrying out the aspirations of the naval strike committee of the February 1946 uprising. This can only be done through a socialist revolution and only through a socialist revolution can the atrocities of partition be avenged.

We need to fight to:

  • Nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, the banks, the land, the industry and mineral resources, under workers’ control.
  • Democratically plan production to satisfy the needs of the working people.
  • Return to the genuine ideas of revolutionary Marxism, of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.
  • Fight for a voluntary socialist federation of the subcontinent as a step towards a federation of Asia and then the whole world.

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