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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

Some Reminiscences of India and the CPI

Sunday 15 March 2009, by Victor G. Kiernan


In Britain Marxism was having a modest growth in the 1930s, and interest in India was kindling at the universities, especially in London, Oxford, and Cambridge where Indian students were most numerous, all of them nationalists and some turning towards socialism. Marxist groups of British and Indian students were formed, one at Cambridge by a Canadian, Herbert Norman; after his departure I was one of those who helped to keep it going. With some Indians communism was only youthful self-dramatising; others remained active political workers after their return home—which for two of the Cambridge circle began with a spell in jail.1 A major issue we were hearing about from India was the Communists’ attempt to gain entry into the mildy reformist ‘Congress Socialist Party’, a Left wing, encouraged by Nehru of the National Congress. It was led by Masani, who visited Cambridge about that time and addressed a public meeting; in later years he was to be a paladin of free enterprise. He was determined to keep the Communists out of the CSP, and a letter from Joshi to Bradley contained the remark: ‘You know how our boys feel about Masani; they would tear him limb from limb.’ To me it appeared that this cock-fighting on the Left was futile, and I wrote an article suggesting that mutual tolerance between two separate parties would do more good.

In September 1938 I sailed to India, to see the political scene at closer hand, and with some schemes of historical study. I was the bearer of a lengthy document from the Communist International, which would have been cheering to the British authorities if it had fallen into their hands. Its gist was that Moscow could not campaign at present for legalisation of the Indian Party; the reason of course was Soviet eagerness for a collective security agreement with Britain. Conditions however had been improving for the Party since the installation of Congress Ministries in Bombay and other provinces, as a result of elections following the new Government of India Act of 1935 and its enlargement of provincial autonomy. Still illegal though it was, the Party was not being much harassed. Nehru’s socialist sympathies had some weight, and, as I was told by Soli Batliwala, a Parsee member of the leading committee, during Civil Disobedience some Communists like himself had rubbed shoulders in jail with Congressmen, and a sort of ‘old prison tie’ freemasonry had emerged.

Careful arrangements had nevertheless to be made for me to meet P.C. Joshi with my message. One appointment, for which I disguised myself by shaving off a moustache lately grown during a holiday in Norway, fell through; our first colloquy took place on a sofa in the Prince of Wales Museum, with an inquisitive custodian standing behind us. My disappointing news was taken philosophically. As an emissary of the CPGB I was invited to several of the weekly consultations held by the leading group. They took place over dinner at the hospitable flat of Batliwala’s mother-in-law. His wife Nargis was my guide on the first occasion; I had to follow some yards behind her, after being kept waiting for half-an-hour outside a cinema in an Indian quarter with no better way to cover up my loitering than to keep typing a shoelace...

...the war took the Party completely by surprise; only a week earlier its organ, National Front, declared that there was going to be another Munich. The Congress soon refused its support, because Britain refused to treat India as an equal partner, and all the provincial Congress Ministries resigned; the CPI condemned the war altogether, because Moscow and the rest of the International condemned it. Its decision was quite palatable to its members, who were at least as much nationalists as socialists. A sort of theoretical justification was mustered up in the Communist for October 1940, a reprint of what Mao had written in September 1939 with an introduction by the Indian editors, who laid the main blame on Britain…

By this time I was at Lahore, capital of the Punjab, where I had previously engaged to do some teaching. Again the Party was underground, and one early experience was to have to shelter briefly in my house a labour organiser, Qurban, who was on the run. In the Punjab, a backwoods province run for the British and for themselves by a coalition of landowners called the Unionist Party, it had never been strong. My Cambridge friends there were no longer active socialists, though through them I met two young progressives employed in the Muslim college at Amritsar. One of these was Mohibbul Hasan, a man of landed connections from the UP (United Provinces), who was to become a well-known historian; the other was Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’, already known as a poet destined to fame as a Communist and as the most remarkable Urdu writer of his time…


After Russia’s involvement in the war, the Party found it painfully hard to adjust itself to the new realities, all the more because many of its activities were scattered about in hiding, or shut up in detention camps. Detenus were at least together in groups, with time on their hands for discussion, and some of them may have helped to push the leadership into changing its mind. Once it did so it acted in its customary style of going the whole hog, jumping from one extreme to another. An eight-page pamphlet issued in February 1942 announced that ‘This is no more an imperialist war’, and invoked the memory of China’s Communists building a united front against Japanese aggression.2 Joshi has been criticised for indiscreet haste in emerging from hiding and going to Delhi to negotiate; this led to the Party being granted very considerable freedom of action (and an allowance of newsprint, an item in increasingly short supply), but also made it easy for conversative nationalists to accuse it of collaboration…

…Late in July 1942 I had a brief meeting with Nehru, whom I had earlier met in Cambridge and London, and longer talks with his daughter Indira, whom I had known as an Oxford student, when they were passing through Lahore. On the 24th I put together a memorandum for the Party, to pass on my strong impression that the Congress was planning some dramatic move. It would, I foresaw, be a summons to the masses, kept on simply nationalist lines, with no reference to the economic grievances, compounded by wartime hardships, which were at the root of much of the popular unrest. To counter it, I suggested, the Party must put forward a programme of economic remedies, with a shorter and a long-term list for each province, including agrarian reforms. There should be controls on foods and the distribution of raw materials, and every effort made to convince the man in the street that socialists supporting the war were not turning their backs on radical social change, but had far more regard than the Congress for the people’s welfare.

Next month the Congress launched its ‘August movement’; the leaders retired into prison, probably with a sigh of relief, leaving their followers, without plan or organisation, to undergo brutal repression. The CP condemned the rising as folly, and stood aloof, thus allowing enemies to denounce it as unpatriotic, and even to accuse it of betraying patriots to the police. From an unavoidable but invidious position it felt impelled to rescue itself by a bold initiative. This quickly took the form of a scheme for restoring communal harmony, imperilled by the growing intransigence of Jinnah and the Muslim League.

If circumstances favoured the CP in one way, in another they favoured the League still more, by leaving it an open field and, because of the behaviour of the Congress, official favour. Since its conference at Lahore in March 1940 it had been pressing for complete separation of the Muslim-majority provinces, primarily the Punjab and Bengal, from India. The CP was well ahead of the Congress in comprehending that the League had swelled into a force not to be ignored; Nehru had been inclined to overlook it, on the too narrowly Marxist ground that social and economic pulls could be trusted to wean the masses away from religious obscurantism. Communists could reasonably argue that a united front of the two foremost organisations was needed for helping to win the war, and still more for winning independence, or at least a firm pledge of it in the near future.

…during the next three or four years the Party was able to gain ground rapidly, the more so because there was no other progressive all-India movement in the field. A Congress met in May-June 1943 and worked out a new constitution, to replace the one in force since 1931 which had been framed for work in conditions of illegality. Expansion was uneven, and in the Punjab with its feudal landlordism and tradition as Army recruiting ground, could not be quick. Each province had its special problems; in the Punjab it was, for instance, felt necessary to forbid Sikh comrades to cut off their long hair and beards, for fear of antagonising their community. A stumbling-bloc of another kind was dealt with in a reproachful homily from headquarters, dated June 19, 1943. This recalled the pre-war admission into the Party ranks of the rival Kirti organisation, really Left-nationalist rather than socialist. It pointed out that the coming of war found the Punjab leadership (which included veterans of Meerut and earlier days) in prison, and unable to keep abreast of events; since then they had not succeeded in assimilating the Kirti faction and bringing it to share the new thinking about the war. As a result there was now a recalcitrant sect within the Party, and stagnation.


Here and elsewhere things were not improved, at least from the point of view of steady long-term progress, by the policy—attributed by some to Joshi—of turning all active members of the Party into full-time workers; low costs of living, and readiness for self-sacrifice, made this feasible. It provided a powerful political striking-force, but an unbalanced structure, with an overgrown bureaucracy detached from the rank-and-file; and it reduced the likelihood of any independent criticism of decisions taken at the centre, any check on the wide and even freakish swings of policy that any untrammelled command is liable to. The ‘Party line’, whatever it might be at any moment, was taking on a kind of mystic sanctity; the infallibility of Stalin, the great exemplar, was spreading to his acolytes. It may have been needed to impress raw recruits with conviction that they were on the right path. But the tendency to turn young intellectuals, in particular, into wholetimers, and either wear them out quickly or reduce them to party hacks, was to continue harmfully into later years.

…When I was compiling notes, under Adhikari’s supervision, for a new edition of the Communist Manifesto, it was made clear to me that nothing Marx ever said was to be queried. Adhikari was the custodian of orthodox doctrine, and had the sobriquet of ‘Doc’. The tacit assumption was that all the Marxism needed was already known to those in charge, and that to ask for any more would be presumptuous. In eight years I never once heard any point of theory seriously discussed. Here again one could detect a reaction away from the Indian taste, strongest among older men, Muslim and Hindu alike, for endless aimless discussions or ramblings about ‘philosophy’; really, as in old Russia, a substitute for the solider things on which debate was ruled out. Among the newer generation it persisted in a fondness for sitting in coffeehouses gossiping interminably about politics, or life in general. Communists prided themselves on being practical men and women, with no leisure for idle chatter. Marxist classics were being reprinted at Bombay, for the first time in India, but they were seldom talked about in Party circles. If new books were wanted, the supposition—not rare on the Left in Britain too—was that intellectuals should be able to turn them out while running from one meeting or demonstration to another. One of the three from my Cambridge group who had become a full-timer assured me that it was useless to think of writing history; only experienced Party leaders could have the necessary insight, and they had no time to spare. (Years afterwards, at Edinburgh, I reminded him—by then a college lecturer—of his dictum, and we had a laugh together.)

This confident, energetic Party could be seen in concentrated form in its Bombay headquarters, close to the best organised mass of industrial workers in India and their legendary Red Flag union. I was asked to go there in some of my vacations and assist in odd jobs, mainly connected with the publishing programme. Into the building were crowded a growing number of men, and a sprinkling of women, from all over India, veterans and beginners, plebeians and aristocrats, Hindus and Muslims. Living and working among them was on the whole the most exhilarating experience of my life. As the chaotic turmoil of the war went on this ‘Commune’, as it was christened, came to seem an oasis of sanity, in what I heard a Bombay taxi-driver calling a mad world. All sorts of visitors were to be met with there…

The Party had come to be her family, a young woman said to me, which she felt she must stick with in spite of not infrequent frictions. It must have had the same appeal to many of her generation, as a replacement for crumbling old family ties; and there must have been a psychological link between the old despotic sway of the family and the new, equally irresistible rule of the Party. Youth was throwing off one authority and hastening to submit to another, as perhaps has often happened. Ordinarily behaviour was easy and informal; people came and went unchallenged, until once on returning from the north I was surprised to find a sentry on duty, and was told that someone had been murdered by an intruder. The Commune had a talented manageress in Parvati Kumaramangalam, daughter of a big landowning family in the south, whose Old Etonian brother Mohan was working there; she had lately come from Oxford, he from Cambridge. She married another south Indian Communist, and both have remained faithful all these years to the cause. Mohan after long service to the Party died a Congress Minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet (so progressive a one however that some suspected him of being still a Communist in sheep’s clothing).


Materially, our lot was hard enough, but privations were equally shared, except that a few seniors had small rooms of their own. Each person received a monthly wage of five rupees (there were thirteen rupees to the pound), in addition to board and lodging. It came to be a rule that Commune members must cut themselves off from relatives outside, so that those from better-off families would not have access to free meals or other luxuries; though I was welcomed each time I came to stay partly because my comparative affluence enabled me to supply old friends with cigarettes. We slept on thin mats on hard floors, in the building or in annexes that had to be found as numbers grew; the main one was in the suburb of Andheri. Meals were sparse; they included meat, as a great treat, once a week. We ate in rows, sitting on the ground, a mode I always found indigestible. It occurred to me sometimes to recall that not long before I had been accustomed to dine at the high table of Trinity College…

Returned students who might, like Mohan, be more fluent in English than in any Indian language, and were employed on the English-language publications, were known as the ‘Angrezi-walas’, or English chaps; there was a touch of envy, but also a feeling of their being only half-Indian, in the way some of the others thought of them. They tried to get over it by being Bolsheviks first, last, and all the time; they had to be more self-consciously so than others, if only to rise above unaccustomed hardships (among which a foulsmelling latrine at Andheri lingers in my nasal memory). Patrician attitudes might survive under Marxist guise; the girl I have quoted confessed to daydreams about playing ‘Messiah’ to the womanhood of her country. One quality too often jettisoned was a sense of humour. I used to make up limericks, on topical subjects, for the wall-newspaper, and as a connoisseur of this genre was disappointed to find that only the least subtle were applauded.

Despite all pressures towards conformity, personalities stood out. Our librarian was an amiable, white-haired man, who had been in Russia; his surprisingly good collection of books ought to have been made more use of than it was. The legal adviser was one Chari, a mature and suave-mannered person who had cultivated in prison a turn for amateur acting, and could demonstrate the use of the facial muscles to express varieties of feeling. In later years I heard of him earning a prodigious income at the Bar; such cases led me to reflect that the Party’s hard training in self-discipline and application could serve men well in quite other occupations, just as some old revolutionaries in seventeenth-century England blossomed into successful businessmen. But though many of the Commune inmates were to be scattered far apart in days to come—Chari was one of several who turned to law—few of them became true renegades (a term then too freely applied to any lapsed member of the Party). One young man, of the too-clever by-half sort, came down to working for the late Shah as a propaganda agent, and wrote a book in praise of him.

There was amusement among the younger fry when it was resolved that the leaders must take their turn at selling publications in the street, and A.K. Ghosh, notoriously shy, succeeded in selling scarcely any. He was a very likeable, unassuming person, to whom it fell to try to heal the wounds of Party division in the 1950s. Of all the seniors the one I got to know was Joshi, or ‘P.C.’ as we called him. He was shortish, round-faced, spectacled figure, frank and open, with a ready tongue for conversation, though a bad stutter made his quick-fire English not easy to follow. He had spoiled his teeth, as he told me, by chewing tobacco mixed with lime when in jail. His weekly cycle worked up to a frenzy of day-long and night-long activity when the editorial page of People’s War, the chief periodical, had to be got ready. In more relaxed hours he would sometimes invite me to join him in a cup of tea at a table outside an Irani café close by, where we walked of miscellaneous things, history among them: he had academic interests, which found more of an outlet in later life. He alone was candid enough to see the point of my criticism of the Soviet film Suvorov for its blatant Russian chauvinism. He married a heroine of the famous Chittagong armoury raid, Kalpana Dutt; the marriage epitomised the absorption of part of the old Bengali terrorist movement into the CP. His name marked him as a Brahmin of the species usually devoted to astrology; not all of his own predictions, alas, turned out happily.


British success in the war stirred no response, except when Indian soldiers were in the limelight, but there was real goodwill towards the USSR and admiration for its resistance to the invaders, all the more because it was known that the USSR had never been loved by John Bull. The Party took the lead in setting up a body of ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’, with branches in every province. Our provincial organiser was Freda Bedi, an Englishwoman married to a Punjabi who was emerging as one of the most effective of a newer generation of Party leaders. I drafted a letter calling for contacts with Russia to be opened up through official and academic channels, and for Soviet films to be shown and radio programmes planned on such subjects as Soviet agricultural experience and its relevance to Indian needs…

…All India Radio, then just geeting into its stride, was in Indian hands apart from occasional interference from on high. I edited a small series of pamphlets. An exhibition, nationally organised, toured the country, and was shown not only at Lahore but at the village of Bakna when the All-India Peasant Conference was held there one year; groups of peasants were shown round it by our volunteers, and were evidently thrilled by this peepshow of a different world. At the end of the war, when a victory celebration was to be held at Lahore, I had the odd experience of being rung up by the Commissioner and asked for a Soviet flag, which unfortunately we did not possess. In its way the FSU was blazing a trail towards the entente between India and the USSR which for several decades has been a benign factor in the politics of Asia.

It was another sign of changing times when the authorities decided, after immense hesitations, to allow students to run a camp for a week’s training in guerrilla warfare, as preparation to meet a Japanese invasion. It was held in the grounds of the Forman Christian College, with much singing, in spite of extreme summer heat, and some instruction by Army personnel.
Interest in Russia could excite students more still than peasants, and there was an active though faction-wracked student movement. At one gathering in Lahore the Party students called for more self-education, under the watchword: ‘Culture is easy’. Experience has failed to bear this out, as the degeneration of the student movement in India, and far more in Pakistan, testifies. But the Progressive Writers’ Association, first set up in London by Left-wing students late in 1934, was flourishing; in the Punjab Mohibbul Hasan was one of its promoters. At Bombay poets of the Left like Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafri were making their names. Socialist literature would have been still more potent, it came to be recognised in time, if it had not been quite so propagandist and sectarian. In India poetry was still a living force, and I remember a young Punjabi writer declaiming at the Commune, with burning conviction, the lines of the great poet Iqbal, only recently dead, ‘God’s Command to His Angels’:

Rise, and from their slumber wake the poor ones of my world:

Over all this hopeful stir communal embitterment threw a darkening shadow, though almost to the end the Party turned an obstinately blind eye to the portents. Jinnah himself was a secularist, and had formerly been a liberal Indian nationalist; and Joshi told me of having seen him sitting at the door of his Bombay mansion giving legal advice free, or for a nominal fee, to poor clients. In the Party press he was always ‘Jinnah Sahib’, instead of Mr Jinnah, as a salute to the Muslim identity, but such civilities did less to mollify him than to irritate Congressmen who were being given further ground for attacking the Party as anti-national. What its theorists refused to see was that the League propaganda at the grassroots was becoming more and more viciously anti-Hindu, to make up for its dearth of any social programme. The CP could legitimately claim to be a party of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, or rather of men and women who had thrown off the shackles of all religions. ‘Hindus and Muslims are brothers’ was one of its rallying-cries, which members would jump up and shout in the middle of any sort of public meeting. ‘The Communist Party is the party of unity’ was another. Against a rising tide of communal hatred they had a hollow sound.


In the summer of 1946 I was at the Commune for the last time, and had a friendly leave-taking with Joshi in his little den, before boarding a crowded ship to England; on the wharf my heap of baggage, mostly books, was carefully searched by a police agent. Tensions were already building up in India, and independence a year later was accompanied by the frightful communal massacres; the Party could only react, not very helpfully, by putting most of the blame on the British and their myrmidons.3 At least half a million Punjabis perished; the old familiar Lahore was left an entirely Muslim city, all Hindus and Sikhs dead or fled, and whole streets gutted; I saw some of them still lying derelict twenty years later. Daydreams of a forward-looking Pakistan were speedily dispelled, and no Communist organisation was allowed to set itself up there.

For the Party in India, worse followed. Just as events in 1942 had pushed it into a hasty experiment in communal politics, early in 1948 the disastrous failure of that experiment, and the renewed isolation that was to be feared, pushed it into a premature challenge to the new Congress Government, still in all its fresh bloom. There was another motive in the desire to prove that the Party had not sunk into reformism but was still truly revolutionary. A great many momentous decisions in history must have owned more to emotional incitements like this than to calculation. Joshi was ousted, and humiliatingly treated, by B.T. Ranadive, whom I had heard privately talked of as ambitious of the top place. The government retaliated as heavy-handedly as in British days; officialdom and the police had undergone no change. Party membership was soon dwindling; the leadership thundered against faint-hearts who had joined when things were easy, and could not stand fast now that battle was joined. No doubt there was some truth in this, but the new tactics were too patently reckless to keep morale high. Collapse of the adventure soon left the Party exhausted and disoriented.

Adhikari was one of the survivors; there was something of the Vicar of Bray in him. He remained a devotee of black-or-white, yes-or-no, thinking, and in 1964 published a sweeping repudiation of the Party’s entire strategy from 1942 to 1947, including both its abstention from the August 1942 rising and (more reasonably) its support of the Muslim League.4 Today there seems to be a revival of interest among some Indian Communists in those now distant days, when the Party was at least more united than it has ever been since, and of respect for some of its prominent figures, foremost among them Joshi. In one of the last letters I had from him, written on December 29, 1969, he told me he was planning a volume of memoirs, and had been recalling a long comic poem I composed during one solourn at the Commune. It was called The Two Commissars, or Thirty Years After, and depicted a Soviet India headed by him, with two of my Cambridge associates in ministerial posts, and myself a Party factotum trying to write an autobiography under the title Thirty Years a Deviator. The satire served to relieve a frequent exasperation at the wooden dogmatism, bureau-cratism, aggressive national self-easteem, that jostled with the Party’s many admirable qualities. ‘P.C.’ asked me to send him a copy of it. ‘No Memoirs unless I can quote this poem of yours—your political cuteness—the Primitive Pahari (Hillman—that is, himself) could not foresee what the British youngster (then) did’.

Sometimes it is indeed the onlooker who sees most of the game.


1. Michael Carritt, A Mole in the Crown, Hove, 1985.

2. ‘India in the War of Liberation’, Resolution of the Polit-Bureau of the CPI, February 1942.

3. Bleeding Punjab Warns, a pamphlet by Dhanwantri, a Punjab leader, and P.C. Joshi, Bombay, September 1947.

4. G. Adhikari, Communist Party and India’s Path to National Regeneration and Socialism, Delhi, 1964, pp. 81 ff.

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