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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 33 New Delhi August 3, 2019

Tribute to Primla Loomba

Saturday 3 August 2019

by Nandita Chaturvedi and Archishman Raju

It seems a little out of place for us, who have had very limited interaction with Primla Loomba, to be writing a tribute to her and we must humbly acknowledge that there are those who knew her far better, much more intimately, and will write in a way that does justice to her life. If we have taken this step, therefore, it is because a brief hour-long meeting with her in January (2019) made such a deep impression on us and came at such a formative time in our lives, that we felt compelled to share this stranger’s perspective, if only in the hope that it may be of interest to those, who, like us, will see her life and the period of history that she lived in as outsiders, but show interest in it as we search for direction today.

As two students in American universities, we got involved in the peace movement, and the movement for Black freedom in America. It was our time in America that introduced us to American stalwarts of the peace movement like W.E.B Du Bois and Paul Robeson. In learning and exploring their legacy, we felt like we were discovering a history that had been taken away from us, and deliberately kept from us. Ironically, it was in America that we discovered those who were much closer to home, people like Romesh and Perin Chandra, and E.S. Reddy, lifelong fighters for world peace and an equitable international order.

It was through this journey that we found our first introduction to Primla Loomba in her beautiful tribute to Perin Chandra, remembering Perin Chandra’s activities in the peace movement. There, she not only gave a beautiful picture of Perin Chandra’s character, but also described the importance of the peace movement as part of the worldwide anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle. We felt compelled to go meet her and talk to her.

Her house in Bhagat Singh Market had a sunlight terrace on which we all sat down. She may have aged but her face still shone and her eyes were sharp. She was generous with her time and we asked her many questions—on her association with Perin, their days in Lahore and in Delhi. She described how she and Perin were close comrades, planning each day, and spending several nights together engaged in work for the party. Her description allowed us to see that past generation which had participated in the struggle for freedom and peace, as part of our legacy and whose thoughts and actions we could understand and imbibe.

Our questions were both historical and theoretical in nature. We asked her about the days of the freedom struggle and she described it as a time of unity. She talked about a principled unity, in which Congress and Communists could have differences of opinion but they would intermingle freely and it was understood that they were together in the fight against imperialism. We were struck by how she described politics carried out along broad ideas and principles, engaging large numbers of people and building united fronts, and in the concept of a principled unity between different political formations fighting for common objectives.

It was she who told us of the ingenuity and courage of Aruna Asaf Ali. She gave us her example to describe the relationship between the leadership and workers on the ground. She described how Aruna Asaf Ali would follow the Congress leadership until the time of the ‘Quit India’ Movement. At that time, when she went underground and was wanted by the British, Gandhiji wrote to her asking her to surrender. Primla Loomba described Aruna Asaf Ali’s conduct with a certain firmness. Aruna knew that she was right in what she was doing and so she refused to surrender, she went against the leadership not as mere intellectual or childish rebellion but as a deeply committed worker who was convinced she was right. This dialectic between the leadership and cadre is important to understand, mere rebellion against all kinds of leadership is only self-serving, but there are times when one must push and challenge the leadership; such times require a certain amount of thought and confidence in one’s position. Her descriptions of Aruna, Perin and herself, as well as their activities showed us a model for how true revolutionaries carry themselves in the struggle.

Our generation, which has never seen mass struggle on that scale, or a concrete realisation of a challenge to capitalism, can sometimes dismiss this history as irrelevant to our times. Paradoxically, it is this history which may be most relevant today, a history which formed a nation and has brought it to where it is today is essential in understanding the direction it can take in the future. Today, the pessimism many people share is to do with the unfulfilled dreams of the anti-colonial struggle. The broad and visionary ideas of the freedom struggle are replaced with narrow compromises that represent a retreat. The ideas of the anti-colonial struggle and the “old Left” are dismissed as irrelevant and naive. It is in this time that we must examine the life and ideas of tireless workers for freedom like Primla Loomba. Her life, along with those of many of her generation, can serve to show us a way forward in this time of crisis and stagnation. The ideas and methods that developed in our freedom struggle must be revived in a new form, in a new synthesis of our history to continue the present struggle for freedom and peace.

Nandita Chaturvedi is a Ph.D student at the University of Pennsylvania. Archishman Raju is a Research Fellow at Rockefeller University. They are both members of the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia.

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