Red Flag Marches Ahead 1937-39
AS part of the united front tactics, communists started working in the Congress and concentrated on building various mass and class organisations. Red flag was marching ahead and the united front against imperialism was emerging as a powerful force with the active participation of workers, peasants and intelligentsia. The growing impact of trade union and kisan sabha activities forced the Congress to include many demands of the working class and peasantry in its election manifesto for the 1937 elections.
The Communist Party and the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) viewed electoral activities as an important means to strengthen anti-imperialist struggle. They wanted to create a revolutionary mass movement by combining majority in the legislature, with peoples’ movement outside the legislature. They adopted an approach of wrecking the constitution with popular force and framing a new constitution for India by a constituent assembly which would be constituted by the people.
At the initiative of communists, working class actions scaled new heights in 1937. The number of strikes was 397 – the highest since 1921 and involved 606,000 workers. The huge general strike in Bengal involved 225,000 workers; Kanpur textile strike involving 40,000 workers brought about a broad unity in support of the workers. This strike lasted about 55 days and won a notable victory. Kanpur strike became a model for workers’ actions throughout the country. This strike action proved the strength of the unity of communists, socialists and ordinary Congressmen, to all the anti-imperialists in the country and what could be achieved through this unity. Following this, there was a wave of strikes all over the country.
Many kisan jathas were organised, indicating the growing strength of the Left. It was also in the same period that people’s struggles, against autocratic rule and for representative government began to emerge in the princely states. Communists made significant contributions for the growth of these new movements in states like Travancore, Cochin, Hyderabad and others. Experiences of these movements converted many democratic minded people to the Left. Thus, while the right-wing Congress leadership was engaged in the selection of candidates and in other activities for winning elections, the Left utilised the election campaign politically and organisationally, to further strengthen anti-imperialist mass movement.
The activities carried out by communists, socialists and other Left-wing sections outside the annual Congress session in Faizpur (1936) were broader and more successful than the resolutions adopted formally in the Congress session. The atmosphere during the session was surcharged with socialist slogans, emphasising the rights of workers and peasants and against imperialism and fascism.
The Congress governments that were formed after the elections in 1937 did not act in accordance with the aspirations of people and even went against them. The attitude of the provincial Congress ministries towards workers and peasant struggles and the negative approach adopted by Gandhi and other right-wing leaders towards the democratic struggles of the people in the princely states, made the Leftists discontented and restive. Workers’ strikes, peasant satyagraha and other forms of direct action took place all over the country. Ordinary Congressmen joined hands with communists and Congress socialists in these protests. These were an expression of anguish of ordinary people.
Repressive actions resorted to by the Congress government were in no way different from the non-Congress governments. Home minister of Bombay, KM Munshi acted as if he was more loyal than the king and detained communists and other Left leaders. He had requested the viceroy to use the CID to deal with communists in and around Bombay, which even surprised the viceroy.
The first issue on which Congress ministries and the Left movement clashed was the release of political prisoners and keeping the repressive laws in abeyance. In many provinces, including Bombay and Madras, repressive actions against political workers were revived without inhibition. Congress governments resorted to suppression of Leftist newspapers and printing press.
Despite these and other repressive actions, agitations and struggles of workers, peasants and students were advancing. Communists and socialists strove to give these struggles an organised form, thereby strengthening the anti-imperialist front. Due to the pressure of these struggles, Congress governments in many states appointed committees to enquire into workers’ and peasants problems and look into their demands. In some instances, Congress governments were compelled to take action and accept some demands of the workers.
More than 50 per cent of the strikes in 1937-39 were partly or fully successful. During this period, the number of strikes as well as the membership of trade unions showed a big increase. The number of unions went up from 241 in 1936 to 562 in 1939 and membership from 268,000 to 390,000. Among trade unions, it was the AITUC, under the Leftists’ leadership, that took great strides. Staring isolation from the working class, the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and its affiliated unions led by moderates decided to merge their organisations with AITUC.
This was also a period of peasant agitations and struggles. Kisan Sabha membership rose from 600,000 in May 1938 to 800,000 in 1939. The growth of Kisan Sabha in the provinces where Congress ministries were in office, disturbed Congress ministers and the right-wing Congress leadership. They tried to placate the peasants by considering some of their demands. Preparations for legislations to this effect, went in parallel to the repressive actions.
All India Students’ Federation also made similar progress against the wishes of the right-wing Congress leadership and in spite of its opposition. Its membership increased from 40,000 in 1938 to 100,000 in 1939.
When the Congress session met in 1938, CPI addressed a manifesto criticising its stand on peoples’ movement in princely states. The Party gave a call for campaign of mass mobilisation asking the ministers to stop the repressive laws against people’s movement, demanding the release of all remaining political prisoners and asking the Congress to take an unambiguous stand on the Kisan Sabha. It demanded support to the TUs and the state peoples’ movement.
The right-wing leadership of the Congress was alarmed with communists, who were using the Kisan Sabha to propagate the ideologies of socialism and communism among the people and organising peasants in organisations independent of the Congress. This was the case not only with the Kisan Sabha, but also with the trade unions and student organisations. Based on these ideologies, agitations and struggles conducted by them were a source of annoyance not only to the big landlords and the British rulers, but also to the Congress ministers. The message of socialism and communism spread extensively during this period, as did the strength of the communist and socialist parties to lead the growing struggles.
Communist Party, CSP and Left-wing Congressmen tried to give an organised form to the expectations that arose among peasants, workers and other labouring masses. Attempts were made to make the Congress implement a programme for social transformation and fulfill the promises made in its election manifesto and other official documents. They consciously utilised whatever little freedom of activities which became available with the formation of the Congress ministries to organise mass agitations, to form trade unions and peasant organisations and for the growth of the Left movement.
Communists took the initiative to form a Leftist coordination committee consisting of the Communist Party, CSP, the newly formed Forward Bloc of Subhash Chandra Bose, the Royist group and All India Kisan Sabha. Together, they called upon people to observe various protest actions against the right-wing in the Congress.
The Communist Party was trying to create a revolutionary movement by rallying the entire masses under the leadership of the working class. It was trying to consolidate working class leadership in the anti-imperialist movement and to lead the peasantry and other toiling masses against the policies of the bourgeois leadership. This distinguished the Communist Party from all other Left parties.
Old revolutionaries and prisoners who earlier believed in the ‘politics of bomb’, got acquainted with communist and socialist literature and after their release, accepted communist ideology and became prominent communist leaders. This was a victory of socialism and communism, because it proved that revolutionary forces inside and outside the Congress had begun adopting the perspective of working on the basis of organised revolutionary strength of the working class, peasantry and other toiling people.
United action with the Communist Party helped to bring changes in the CSP. A section of the CSP gave up their anti-communism and anti-Sovietism. Analysing the right-wing leadership on a class basis, they began to perceive its bourgeois character. They gradually transformed themselves into communists. The entire CSP of Kerala transformed itself into the Communist Party. Things moved in a similar direction in many other parts of the country.
Thus, cooperation between Congress socialists and Communist Party led to the growth of the Communist Party. The Party grew into a significant force in the national movement with an independent organised base.