Learn from Bhagat Singh the Communist Pioneer

Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary year is approaching an end. Throughout the year we have celebrated it -- the highpoints being the 23rd March Delhi rally and the 28th September celebrations -- as part of a broader campaign to observe also the 150th anniversary of India’s first war of independence and the 40th anniversary of Naxalbari uprising. For us it was a campaign to reclaim our history, our country, or freedom, our rights from the clutches of imperialists and their indigenous agents. The campaign evoked tremendous mass response, but some people on the Left did not like the idea or failed to grasp the interconnections. In particular, the way we rediscovered and propagated BS as a communist pioneer was widely appreciated but the official custodians of Marxism and communism in India saw it as “the extreme Left’s efforts to project Bhagat Singh and his comrades as the only truly revolutionary force in the national liberation struggle, pitting them against the Communist Party.” (Bhagat Singh, Liberation’s Blazing Star by PMS Grewal, LeftWord Books, 2007)

Does highlighting BS and his comrades really mean denigrating the communist party? Right from Charu Mazumdar and Vinod Mishra and after, we have always proudly declared ourselves to be part and parcel of the communist movement in India, as the inheritors and protectors of its fine revolutionary traditions. Even a cursory look at our relevant publications -- from “Communist Movement in India” Volume I (1991) to numerous Liberation articles including those on the role of Indian communists in our freedom movement (July and September 1997, October 2005) -- will show that we have always made a positive if self-critical appraisal of our history. Of course, as in other realms of theory and practice, here too we have refused to stand still. We have tried to enrich our understanding of history with new research and new findings, in this case new publications like Bhagat Singh ke Sampoorn Dastavez (Hindi) edited by Chaman Lal (2004).

Memoirs of Ajoy Ghosh

“I believe it was sometime in 1923 that I met Bhagat Singh for the first time. Tall and thin, rather shabbily dressed, very quiet, he seemed a typical village lad lacking smartness and self-confidence. A few days later I saw him again. We had a long talk. Those were days when we used to dream boyish dreams of revolution. It seemed round the corner – a question of a few years at most. Bhagat Singh did not seem so confident about it. I have forgotten his words but I remember his speaking about the torpor and apathy that prevailed in the land, the difficulty in rousing the people, the heavy odds against us. My first impressions about him seemed confirmed…

Before he left Cawnpore we were close friends though I never ceased to make fun of what appeared to me his pessimistic outlook…

In 1925 like a bolt from the blue came the Kakori arrests. Most of our leaders were in prison within a few weeks… One day in 1928, I was surprised when a young man walked into my room and greeted me. It was Bhagat Singh but not the Bhagat Singh that I had met two years before. Tall and magnificently proportioned, with a keen, intelligent face and gleaming eyes, he looked a different man altogether. And as he talked I realised that he had grown not merely in years. He was now, together with Chandra Shekhar Azad, the leader of our party. He explained to me the changes that had been made in our program and organisational structure.

We were henceforth the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association with a socialist state in India as our avowed objective. We talked the whole night and as we went out for a stroll when the first streaks of red were appearing in the grey sky, it seemed to me that a new era was dawning for our party. We knew what we wanted and we knew how to reach our goal.

In April 1929, streamer headlines announced the arrest of communist and trade union leaders all over the country. …Bhagat Singh and some others among us had already met a number of communist leaders. We felt sympathetic towards them and at one time even contemplated some sort of a working alliance with them - communists to organise the masses and conduct the mass movement, we of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association to act as its armed section. But when we learned that communists considered armed action by individuals to be harmful to the movement, we dropped the idea…

…the countrywide arrests of communists [relating to the Meerut conspiracy case — A Sen] were felt by us to be a matter of vital concern for the revolutionary movement. It was imperialist attack against a cause, which was our own, against a movement which had our love and sympathy. We resolved to protest not merely against the arrests but against the whole imperialist policy of fostering the growth of constitutionalist illusions on the one hand and unleashing terror against the people on the other. A few days later bombs exploded on the official benches in the Central Assembly ….

Perhaps [BS was] the first among us to be drawn towards socialist ideas …It would be an exaggeration to say that he became a Marxist, but more and more as a result of his studies, of discussions which we held frequently and under the impact of events outside, he began to stress the need for armed action only in coordination with and as an integral part of the mass movement, subordinated to its needs and requirements.

What Bhagat Singh had come to mean to our countrymen I realised only when I was out. “Bhagat Singh Zindabad” was the slogan that rent the air wherever a meeting was held. “Inquilab Zindab” -the slogan he had been the first to raise - had replaced “Bande Mataram” as the slogan of the national movement...” (from Bhagat Singh and His Comrades by Ajoy Ghosh, who was about the same age as BS, and who later became the general secretary of CPI)

So BS was, at least at the beginning, so pre-occupied with the problems of rousing the masses that he would appear a pessimist, a go-slower!

From the memoirs of Ajoy Ghosh we learn that the two friends seriously considered working in cooperation with/under the Communist Party, but backed out when told that the Party was absolutely opposed to armed action under all circumstances. Thus BS, like Ghosh, was not prepared to say an absolute no to revolutionary terror. He expressed the same sentiment to Sohan Singh Josh during the first all India conference of the workers’ and peasants’ party at Calcutta in December 1928, “we entirely agree with the programme and activities of your party, but there are times when the blow of the enemy has to be immediately counteracted by armed action is to inspire confidence among the masses.” (quoted in Selected Works of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, p 22)

This reminds us of Lenin’s teachings in such works as “Guerrilla Warfare”, “Forms of the Working Class Movement” etc, where he puts the emphasis on proper combination of all conceivable forms of struggle according to needs of the situation and on quick transition from one form to another. Now this is a dialectic never to be grasped by ‘Marxists’ who have developed a sort of allergy to ‘terrorism’, whether by despised ‘Naxalites’ or ‘great’ national revolutionaries. Thus Grewal writes, “contradictory as it may appear, the fact is that Bhagat Singh is remembered as an inspirational symbol among the common masses precisely for acts which qualify as individual terrorism.... the shooting of Saunders, the throwing of bombs in the Central assembly and his martyrdom as a result of these acts.” (PMS Grewal, op. cit., p 61-62)

These were in fact political acts of the highest order, classic examples of how theory -- in this case “Inquilab Zindab” and Swaraj with socialism as opposed to the Gandhian nonviolence and politics of national betrayal -- becomes a material force by gripping the masses. The people of India, already witness to scores of heroic actions, responded unprecedentedly to these actions precisely because of their exceptional political content. This act of avenging the death of Punjab Kesri Lala Lajpat Rai (with whom, incidentally, Bhagat Singh had some major ideological differences) and the declaration -- “let the world know that India still lives; that the blood of youths has not been totally cooled down and that they can still risk their lives, if the honour of their nation is at stake...” -- roused the whole country as never before. As for the assembly bomb incident, there was nothing terrorist about it, for no physical harm was intended or inflicted and the whole accent was on propaganda against the anti-communist, anti-working class tirade of the British government. Planned by and executed under the supervision of the party (HSRA), these actions in fact contained seeds of a potential transition from revolutionary terrorism to nationwide mass militancy -- a potential that could not be actualised for lack of adequate organisational apparatus.

BS’ profound support and respect for communists stand out from another fact noted by Ajoy Ghosh. It was the Meerut arrests, a savage attack on communists and the working class, and the institutionalisation of such attacks in the shape of the Public Safety Bill and Trade Disputes Bill, which provoked the HSRA to plan and execute the assembly bomb action.

Bhagat Singh and CPI

If despite all this BS did not feel like joining the existing CPI and thought of building a new one or reorganising the existing national revolutionary groups into a new revolutionary communist party, there must be some profound reasons for that. How should we communists today assess those reasons?

Two approaches are possible here. One is to take a holier-than-thou attitude and explain away the whole thing in terms of young Bhagat’s immaturity, self-contradictions, remnants of anarchism/individual terrorism, or ‘terro-communism’ (to borrow a bizarre expression used by Shiv Varma after he joined the communist party). In this approach, very dogmatic and very convenient for a powerful collective, the onus is placed entirely on the individual. If the latter fails to register herself/himself as a member, the fault or at least the responsibility is all his or hers. The party may have shortcomings, but that should not be an issue.

The other is a modest, dialectical approach that takes into cognizance both the individual’s limitations and the collective’s failings, so as to gain a deeper understanding of the whole thing in all its interconnections. In this view, if BS’ transition to Marxism/communism was completed in elementary aspects (in the sense he was already a Marxist) but not in every detail, the then CPI too was only a communist party in the making (as vouchsafed by its leading organs; see below) and hardly in a shape to inspire revolutionary leaders like BS (or Vohra or Azad for that matter) to simply join it and get assimilated. The fragmented, rudderless state of CPI became quite obvious after the Meerut arrests in March 1929, but the ideological-political rot had set in long ago.

State of the CPI, 1928-34

The organiser of the “first Indian communist conference” in Kanpur in 1925 was one dubious Satyabhakta, who deserted the party within days after foundation. The conference was openly held, and this was not liked by serious organisers like Muzaffar Ahmad, who later described it as a tamasha (see Myself and the CPI (1969)). No programme or tactical document was adopted, although a hastily drafted constitution was. Communists carried on good work on TU and propaganda fronts, worked energetically from within the Congress to influence the national mainstream, and scored great successes in bringing under their leadership and rapidly expanding the workers’ and peasants’ parties operating in different provinces in various names. But with the easy success of WPPs, which were knit together into an all-India organisation in 1928, they became the primary -- and then almost exclusive -- centre of activity while the communist party as a distinct entity and the special party tasks receded more and more into the background. From late 1927 all political interventions -- for example in AICC sessions -- began to be made in the name of WPPs. The leadership no longer cared for a party organ; the otherwise successful and open WPP magazines were deemed sufficient. No attention was paid to the ideological and organisational aspects of party building (recruitment of large numbers of party members commensurate with the expansion of mass work, formation of party committees at various levels and so on) or to painstaking tasks like building an underground structure and developing militant struggles of landless and poor peasants.

For all practical purposes, the communist party was gradually becoming an appendage of its own creation -- the WPP. According to Horace Williamson, director of IB, “to such a pass had things come in May 1928 that Ghate seriously suggested that the workers’ and peasants’ party should control the communist party -- a complete reversal of the orthodox procedure prescribed in Moscow.” Even if we ignore this remark of the enemy, there is no denying that the Communist International (CI) itself was highly critical of the harmful tendency -- call it liquidationism or otherwise -- of neglecting the communist party for the sake of a broader front. Thus in a message “ to the all Indian conference of workers and peasants parties”, it observed that the rapidly developing struggles demanded, “above all, the creation of an independent class party of the proletariat, the uniting and raising of the isolated actions of the peasants to the highest political level, and the formation of a real revolutionary block of workers and peasants, under the leadership of the proletariat not in the form of a united workers’ and peasants’ party, but on the basis of cooperation between the mass organisations of the proletariat on the one hand and peasant leagues and committees on the other...” (emphasis added) The very practice of workers’ and peasants’ parties thus stood challenged. The message also called for “purging the leading bodies of your organisations from suspicious and unreliable elements... remembering that the petty bourgeoisie, not to speak of the bourgeois intellectuals, are closely tied up with the system of big landownership so that they must by all means combat the developing agrarian revolution.”

An idea of the actual inner-party situation can also be obtained from the following excerpts from major documents of the period:

“The building of a centralised, disciplined, united, mass, underground Communist Party is today the chief and basic task long ago overdue”, declared the draft platform of action of CPI in December 1930.

“Instead of a struggle for a united all Indian communist party, we find localism, provincialism, self-isolation from the masses, etc which though it could be understood in 1930, now represents the main danger to the revolutionary proletarian movement.” This was observed in an open letter to CPI issued by the communist parties of China, Great Britain and Germany in May 1932.

“The CC of the CPI has been split up with quarrels on account of its own faults and weaknesses. Let us close that sad chapter in the history of the CPI and reform with renewed vigour and earnestness a strong and really representative central committee of the CPI, let us bring out a central organ of the CPI, let us infuse fresh blood into the party...” Such was the appeal issued by the Calcutta Committee in March 1933.

So much for the organisational state of affairs. What was the level of political clarity?

Comrade Grewal joins issue with Comrade Dipankar Bhattacharya for the latter’s remark that BS produced the first effective blueprint of a revolutionary communist programme and tactics in the history of Indian communist movement; he calls this an “unhistorical exaggeration”. He then makes a reference to what he seems to regard as the first programmatic document: “the CPI’s Platform of Action, published in 1930 by the organ of the Communist International...”. He cannot cite any earlier document, simply because there was none. Now let us take a closer look at this one.

Titled “The Draft Platform of Action of the CPI”, it was printed in the International Press Correspondence (Inprecor), December 18, 1930 issue, with an invitation to communists in other countries to send in their opinions so as to facilitate finalisation. It is easy to see why it was first published outside the country and then distributed, three months later, in the Karachi session of INC (in March 1931). Given the shattered, leaderless state of the party organisation, it can be safely presumed that it was drafted by leaders of some other party or parties conversant with the Indian situation.

Comrade Grewal also says that the 1930 document was “later elaborated into the programme of CPI at a party plenum held in 1934...” Why such a long gap of four years? Mainly because this thoroughly left sectarian document (a fact partly admitted by Grewal) failed to unify the Indian communists. While talking of agrarian revolution, the draft platform advocates “a one-stage socialist revolution” (Grewal, op. cit., the 97). It is elaborate enough to cover problems like untouchability and the British policy of divide and rule, but comes a cropper on the tactical line. The concept of even utilising the Congress-led movements is withdrawn. A “ruthless war” is declared on the “‘left’ National reformists” led by Nehru and Bose and Indian communists are asked to “expel and isolate reformists of all shades” from AITUC, leading to its inevitable split.

This harmful ultra-leftism in its turn was a mirror image of the CPI’s right reformism, or position of critical tailism vis-à-vis the INC, during the initial years. And the confusion continued well into 1934. Thus the draft political thesis drawn up by the provisional central committee based in Bombay and published in its organ The Communist in January 1934 was rejected by the powerful Calcutta committee. It is against this backdrop of the right-left swing of the CPI pendulum and the lingering confusion that BS’ contributions stand out in bold relief.

BS on Orientation, Programme, Tactics

BS’ last major writing “Draft Revolutionary Programme”, which conveys the collective understanding of comrades incarcerated in Lahore Central Jail, has got two parts. The first part was meant for wide circulation and hence written as a message “To Young Political Workers”. The second part, titled “A Golden Opportunity For Us”, was for discussion and debate among mature comrades. BS concluded his “message” with a call to move forward “inch by inch”, but in the second part he demands a greater sense of urgency from his comrades. Referring to the acute crisis of capitalism and the advancing army of unemployed, he declares, “revolution is no longer a promise of the future... but a matter of practical politics.” What follows is an annotated free translation of some of the main points covered in this two-part document.

Character of Revolution

“We want a socialist revolution, the indispensable preliminary to which is the political revolution. That is what we want.” Here and elsewhere he uses the word socialism to indicate the direction of India’s revolutionary journey, but elimination of feudalism figured on top of the programmatic tasks highlighted in his draft programme (see below).

By “the indispensable preliminary” of “political revolution”, BS obviously meant the revolutionary overthrow of the imperialist yoke, but he insisted that power must be handed over not to the Indian exploiting classes, but only to revolutionary representatives of the people:

“We mean the economic liberty of the masses, and for that very purpose we are striving to win the political power. No doubt, in the beginning, we shall have to fight for little economic demands and privileges of these classes. But these struggles are the best means for educating them for a final struggle to conquer political power.”

In this connection let us quote from his last “Petition to the Punjab governor”:

“Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian. … All these things make no difference. … The war shall continue.

It may assume different shapes at different times. It may become now open, now hidden, now purely agitational, now fierce life and death struggle. It shall be waged ever with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established and … every sort of exploitation is put an end to and the humanity is ushered into the era of genuine and permanent peace.”

Critique of Gandhian Leadership

“I have said that the present movement... is bound to end in some sort of compromise or complete failure.

I said that, because in my opinion, this time the real revolutionary forces have not been invited into the arena. This is a struggle dependent upon the middle class shopkeepers and a few capitalists. Both these, and particularly the latter, can never dare to risk its property or possessions in any struggle. The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers. But our bourgeois leaders do not and cannot dare to tackle them. The sleeping lion once awakened from its slumber shall become irresistible even after the achievement of what our leaders aim at. After his first experience with the Ahmedabad labourers in 1920 Mahatma Gandhi declared: “we must not tamper with the labourers. It is dangerous to make political use of the factory proletariat.” (The Times, May 1921). Since then, they never dared to approach them. There remains the peasantry. The Bardoli resolution of 1922 clearly depicts the horror the leaders felt when they saw the gigantic peasant class rising to shake off not only the domination of an alien nation but also the yoke of the landlords.

It is clear that our leaders prefer a surrender to the British than to the peasantry....”

General Programme

“The present situation demands of us a clear and responsible programme of revolution. Just before the revolution of October 1917, Lenin mentioned three necessary conditions of a successful revolution:

Political and economic situation.

The spirit of rebellion among the masses.

A revolutionary party, fully trained to lead the masses at the decisive hour.

In India the first condition has already been fulfilled while the other two are waiting for complete realisation. To work for their fulfilment is the first task of every fighter for freedom and the programme should be worked out with this end in view. An outline is given below:

Abolition of feudalism.

Waiver of farmers’ loans.

Nationalisation of land by the revolutionary state, so that improved and collective farming can be introduced.

Guaranteed houses for all.

All levies on peasants to be stopped, only a unified land tax to be collected.
Nationalisation of factories and setting up of new factories.

Universal education.

The working day to be shortened as needed.

The people will definitely accept such a programme. The most important task at the moment is for us to reach out to the people. On one hand the ignorance imposed on us and on the other hand the apathy of intellectuals -- these two have combined to erect an artificial wall between the educated revolutionaries and their semiliterate toiling comrades. Revolutionaries must make it a point to demolish this wall. To this end the following tasks should be taken up:

1. Utilise the Congress platform.

Assume leadership in trade unions and set up new militant trade unions and other organisations.

Organise state-level unions on the above basis.

Infiltrate all such social and volunteer organisations (including even cooperative societies) where we can develop mass contacts and direct their activities in such a way that we can promote the real issues and purposes.
Establish associations of artisans as well as unions of workers and intellectual workers wherever possible.”

Nature of Communist Party

There is a popular misconception that BS meant to build a party of intellectuals and the youth. Grewal observes:

“... in ‘To Young Political Workers’... while recognizing that ‘the real revolutionary armies are in the villages and factories, the peasantry and the labourers’ he still holds that ‘the party requires workers which can be recruited only through the youth movement. Hence we find the youth movement as the starting point of our programme.’... Bhagat Singh and his comrades had worked primarily among the youth and their genuine sympathy and concern towards workers and peasants was not backed by experience of working among these classes. These and their petit bourgeois origins underlay their persisting view that party workers could only be recruited from among the youth.” (op. cit., p 93)

What is missed out here is the fact that BS actually had a very realistic idea of how the communist party would develop stage by stage:

“As the situation develops, revolutionary intellectuals -- who usually come from, and for a certain length of time will come from, the bourgeois and petty bourgeois backgrounds, but who have dissociated themselves from the habits and traditions of these classes, will mainly constitute the revolutionary party and then around them more and more political activists from among workers, peasants and small artisans will also join the party...” (emphasis added)

What do we gather from all this? The question is not who produced the first, or better, blueprint of communist programme and tactics -- BS and his comrades, or CPI leaders, or their international patrons. The main thing is that in those trying times of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the former while not having the solutions to all problems, were able to pose the right questions in the right perspective in a very original and lively way. If that discourse were sincerely carried forward, only the communist party would have gained.

Where Bhagat Singh was Unique

Unfortunately, that was not to be. But today at least, we can try and rise above rituals to grasp what was decisive and unique in BS.

Whereas many national revolutionaries joined the communist party after the collapse of their movements, BS alone worked for a dialectical negation of this tradition -- making a systemic study of this international trend, thoroughly discarding all that was wrong in it while preserving what was valuable, and organically integrating that with the communist movement, thereby contributing to the long overdue re-invigoration of the latter movement. In a situation marked by the Great Depression and the upheavals like Sholapur, Peshawar and Kishorganj, the significance of this endeavour or contribution cannot be overstated. That the CPI of those days, always looking up to Moscow and London for guidance, failed to grasp this was very unfortunate. Today, the same refusal is tantamount to a definite disservice to the communist movement and a bankrupt attempt to withhold from the present generations the highest, noblest contribution of BS -- his vision of a comprehensive revolutionary party and movement, the vision of a communist pathfinder.

And yet, the revolutionary legacy of BS was not entirely lost to our movement. Consciously or not, it lived on in Kayyur and Punnapra-Vayalar, tebhaga and Telengana, and of course, Naxalbari, Srikakulam, Bhojpur and beyond. 

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