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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER

Romesh Chandra: An Extraordinary Builder of Peace

Saturday 21 December 2019

by Archishman Raju

Background to the Peace movement

When a people’s history of the 20th century is written, Romesh Chandra will shine in it as a world historic figure, and one of the most, if not the most, preeminent fighter for peace in the second half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his legacy is largely unknown to a new generation and very little material is available today on his life and work. There is no better time to remember and understand his importance than on the year of his birth centenary.

To understand the importance of Romesh Chandra, one has to understand the importance of the Cold War in defining international relations after the end of the Second World War. It was the Soviet Union that had fought Hitler valiantly in the Second World War and lost more than 20 million of its people in the fight against fascism. It emerged from the war, tired and battered, but with great moral authority in the world. Around the world, Communists were seen as those who had both defeated fascism and who supported the anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa. In contrast, the United States came out unscathed, and having dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (an Asian country), horrified all peace-loving and progressive observers of the time.

The United States took up the mantle of the old colonial empire, becoming the foremost imperialist power of the day. It unleashed virulent anti-communist propaganda, and imprisoned and executed Communists and Communist-sympathisers inside the country. This anti-communism made it engage in pointless, bloody and destructive wars in Korea and then in Vietnam. Meanwhile, despite occasional rhetoric in favour of self-
determination, the US ultimately went on to oppose each and every anti-colonial and anti-racist movement around the world. Constant threat of war with the Soviet Union had the potential of becoming a nuclear war and thus carried the possibility of world annihilation. Anyone who called for peace inside the United States was labelled a Communist. The great Martin Luther King Jr., by no means a Communist, was to say with irony and exasperation that any person “most certainly is a Communist if he espouses the cause of human brotherhood”!

A Brief Biography of Romesh Chandra

It was in this background that Romesh Chandra was to become one of the founders and early participants of the peace movement in India. Born on March 30, 1919 in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), Romesh Chandra was born a mere two weeks before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the surge of the independence movement in India. His mother’s cousin was Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and it was his family that brought him into contact with leaders like Gandhi and Motilal Nehru at an early age. From his school and college days, Romesh Chandra had already come to be known as a good debater and took interest in dramatics. He initially studied mathematics at Lahore University and became the leader of the Lahore Students’ Union, before going to Trinity College, Cambridge.

At the time he sailed to Britain, there was already an émigré movement formed for India’s freedom in London. The India League Office was run by Krishna Menon, who Romesh Chandra met. He also met Mulk Raj Anand—two books of Anand greatly influenced him—Coolie (1936) and Two Leaves and a Bud (1937) dealing with British rule in India, poverty and the caste system. Romesh Chandra joined the India League and worked to recruit Indian students in Cambridge. He would debate at the Cambridge Union and interact with various students from India and around the world. He said this time taught him that “to be in the Indian independence movement, one must also be an internationalist at the same time”.

On coming back to Lahore in 1939, Romesh Chandra joined the All India Students Federation and the Communist Party of India in 1939. He would continue his journalistic activities interviewing figures like Sheikh Abdullah and meeting Jinnah. He was attached all his life to journalism. By 1946, Romesh Chandra had become sub-editor of People’s Age under Gangadhar Adhikari. He played a crucial role in uncovering a British plan to take military action against strikes and rebellions in India which he published in a pamphlet called “Operation Asylum”. In response, the British raided party offices and arrested both Romesh Chandra and Gangadhar Adhikari among others.

It was this experience of participating in the world communist movement, Indian freedom struggle and seeing the necessity of inter-nationalism that brought him to the forefront of the Indian peace movement.

The Indian Peace Movement

The peace movement in India had its origins in two different events that took place after the end of the Second World War. The first was the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace, an international conference that happened in Poland in 1948. It was attended by a wide variety of intellectuals including German playwright Bertolt Brecht, British biologist J.D. Bernal, Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Mulk Raj Anand also attended the event, which called for both the need to defend peace and culture, and the need for disarmament. The second event at almost the same time was the Inter-Asian Relations Conference organised in India in 1947. This was aimed at bringing together leaders of Asian countries in their common struggle against colonial oppression and for freedom. The conference had delegates from China, from Egypt, Iran, Turkey and many other nations. Both Gandhi and Nehru addressed the conference.

Both of these historic conferences shared a basic desire to see peace in the world, and realise the role of imperialism in creating war. The participants felt that peace was a pre-condition, a necessity, for realising any dreams that humankind was to pursue. They also realised that the question of peace was interconnected with the question of poverty, human rights and culture. This interconnected-ness of the struggle for peace with other struggles was a theme that Romesh Chandra would build on in his life.

The peace movement in India began with the first All India Peace Convention held in Bombay in 1950 (though there had been an earlier meeting in Calcutta in 1949). Mulk Raj Anand was involved in the movement as were Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Krishan Chandar and D.D. Kosambi. As the peace movement garnered support, another Convention was held in 1951 in Bombay which Romesh Chandra attended. The All India Peace Council was formally established in October of 1952 in the 3rd Congress in Jalandhar. Romesh Chandra was elected General Secretary with Saifuddin Kitchlew as President. A wide variety of scientists, artists, film-makers had become part of the peace movement seeing its necessity and value. Stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle, like Saifuddin Kitchlew and Rameshwari Nehru, also joined the peace movement without hesitation. Romesh Chandra held the post of General Secretary of the All India Peace Council up until 1963.

The peace movement by nature was not limited to a party or an organisation. Instead it tried to reach out to a broad section of people who may have different political views and objectives but were agreed on the common objective of peace and the need for anti-imperialism. It engaged in issues ranging from national liberation and Afro-Asian solidarity, to nuclear disarmament and collective security. Romesh Chandra and the Indian peace movement played a big role in giving the world peace movement the direction it took.

In his work, Romesh Chandra synthesised the various strands of thought emerging from the world communist movement and the anti-colonial struggle and combined all positive features which could be united in a struggle for peace. He worked on building coordination between the peace forces in different parts of the world as well as strengthening the peace movement within countries.

Conceptualising the Peace Movement: Peace is Everybody’s Business

Romesh Chandra was elected the General Secretary of the World Peace Council in 1966. He would give many speeches and addresses at various international forums as part of his responsibility. In a peace assembly at the German Democratic Republic in 1969 he
said: “Peace is slowly becoming everybody’s business.”

This was a theme in Romesh Chandra’s speeches on peace. He would speak of how every issue, or question was interlinked with the question of peace. This is why the World Peace Council would speak of “building peace” and peace-activists were called “builders of peace”. The task of defending peace and opposing war was combined with the task of building peace, “building a new world, fighting to eliminate all the suffering, the hunger and poverty, the exploitation and oppression which have been the lot of hundreds of millions for many centuries”.

The World Peace Council ran many campaigns and organised conferences of utmost importance. This included the Stockholm Peace Appeal demanding the outlawing of atomic weapons. It included supporting Afro-Asian solidarity, exposing the role of neo-colonialism and supporting non-alignment.

On the issue of non-alignment, Romesh Chandra said: “Nonalignment was born in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism. Countries, which had won their political freedom after decades and centuries of colonial domination, were being subjected to pressures by the imperialist powers—the old colonial rulers and the United States of America—to remain within the network of the capitalist economic systems and to join regional military blocs and pacts.”

Romesh Chandra would warn against a simple slogan of “Developing countries, unite”. He said such a slogan “if wrongly interpreted, can weaken greatly the struggle of anti-imperialist developing countries against the inroads of neocolonialism. It has to be seen that US neocolonialism and all the developed imperialist states are the principal enemies of the independent economic development of countries. And at the same time, the developed socialist states..are those whose assistance is fundamental” Similarly the slogan of Afro Asian solidarity meant solidarity against imperialism and reaction everywhere. It was not a geographi-cal concept but rather “a political slogan of vital significance for the struggle for peace and national independence”.

Romesh Chandra would often speak of the incompleteness of the anti-colonial struggle and the need for a second war of independence: economic independence. It was vital for the interests of peace that a country’s natural resources remain in the hands of the people, rather than be taken by multinational companies.

The World Peace Council would point out that “Oil is a weapon in the struggle against imperialism..Oil is a weapon for all peoples fighting against imperialism, Zionism and reaction.” They would fight for people’s sovereignty over national resources.

As Romesh Chandra said: “There is hunger and poverty because our peoples are plundered and robbed by imperialism and neocolonialism and by the multinational corporations...The resources of every country must be in the hands of its people. That is the way to peace.”

This sovereignty was seen as the basis of a “New International Economic Order”. This was an effort that looked to create more equal economic relationships at an international scale asking for better balance of trade and increased assistance for developing countries. This was a struggle of developing countries to get control over their resources, have the right to nationalise their property and was fully supported by the World Peace Council.

Particular mention should be made of the Vietnam war and the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. The Vietnam war, in particular, galvanised the forces of peace around the world. The World Peace Council played a central role in coordinating between these peace organi-sations. The struggle against apartheid was ultimately fought in South Africa by brave men and women. However, a significant part was played by the role of public opinion in the world which the World Peace Council contri-buted to changing.

Salute to Comrade Romesh Chandra

There are many more struggles and many more issues that Romesh Chandra, the World Peace Council and peace movements in India participated in, all of which cannot be summarised in so short a space. To name just a few, they include organising cultural celebrations, fighting for communal harmony in India and solidarity with countries in Latin America including Cuba and Chile.

Romesh Chandra was awarded the F. Joliot-Curie Gold Peace medal in 1964. He was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize in 1968. He was given a gold medal by the UN for contributions to ending apartheid. He met and had close friendships with a range of world leaders, including Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, Sheikh Mujib and many others. He was known to be an excellent orator—addressed the UN on many occasions—and led peace delegations around the world.

He had an excellent grasp of the importance of literature and its relationship to politics. He could speak on topics as varied as nuclear disarmament, détente between Soviet Union and the United States and the writings of Premchand and the poetry of Subramania Bharati or Vallathol. He had a quick intuitive grasp over politics and was able to discern the root nature of contradictions in any situation.

However, it is not just for these memories that we remember him on the occasion of his birth centenary. Reading the works of Romesh Chandra only reminds us how far the fight for peace still has to go and why we must rebuild the peace movement today in a world of increasing complexity and renewed threat of war. All of the concepts that Romesh Chandra and the World Peace Council developed seem particularly clear today. We have seen a war on Iraq for oil. We have seen a recent coup in Bolivia for the control over its national resources. We have seen increased tensions between India, Pakistan and China. Meanwhile, many point to an emerging new Cold War as we move towards a more multipolar world. World economic relations are in urgent need of reform and call for a new international economic order. Rising communalism in India only serves the forces of reaction. All of these will be achieved only if the peace movement fights for ideological clarity and mobilises world opinion on these issues.

Naturally, we no longer have that past leadership or the support of the Soviet Union. However, the peace movement was always a peoples’ movement. The task of fighters for peace today is to demand leadership which can build peace. The greatest tribute we can pay to Comrade Romesh Chandra, as we salute him, would be to continue the struggle for peace and maintain its anti-imperialist character today. It will require a mammoth struggle but this struggle is in the cause of all of humanity, and we must take light from this past spirit to illuminate the path ahead.

Archishman Raju is a Research Fellow at the Rockefeller University. He is a member of the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia.

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