October 18, 2020

Recalling the Role of Communists in Freedom Struggle

Nilotpal Basu

THE year-long observation of the formation of the Communist Party of India in Tashkent on October 17, 1920 will come to close. But, the objective of the CPI since its inception, in shaping the future of India as a democratic, secular, people’s Republic where citizens will enjoy equality and freedom irrespective of caste, creed, religion and economic status remains unaccomplished. It has also come to suffer severe setbacks, particularly, in the recent years where these very foundational principles of the constitution have come to be contested. We are experiencing one of the worst levels of inequality, exploitation, erosion of constitutional rights and freedoms based on religious denominations, caste and gender discrimination. It is in this context, that the recalling of the Communist role in the freedom struggle assumes importance. The role of the Communists was precisely in establishing these ideas of political freedom and equality of the citizens by addressing those very concerns which stand threatened today.


The chequered history of British rule and its brutal exploitation of our people powered our freedom struggle. The innumerable struggles of the people in the vast and diverse conditions of the Indian people resulted in their convergence for the emergence of the freedom struggle as a nationwide entity. It will be a truism to reiterate that the immediate reason of each of these struggles was the plunder and loot, a key in sustaining the British Empire.

The first organised expression against this colonial exploitation was manifested in the revolt of the Indian soldiers of the British Indian army. From May 10, 1857 when the rebellion started, it took the British administration four months to reoccupy Delhi on September 20, 1857. But, it took them almost two years to re-establish control over the rebels and recapture  most of northern India liberated during the uprising.

Much of colonial history writing had tried to belittle the significance of the revolt, but some writings throw light on the prevailing circumstances. It was obvious that though the immediate trigger for the revolt was the discontent of dispossessed rulers of Indian princely states, nobles and zamindars, Indian soldiers and the vast masses of common working people facing ruination under British rule rose in unison. 

In contesting the British historians’ attempt to belittle the national uprising as a “Sepoy Mutiny” downplaying the role of popular masses, Karl Marx came to characterise the rebellion as “national revolt of Hindus and Muslims” and added that “military mutiny is in truth, a national revolt”.

As much as the great impact of the uprising, lessons of its failure to sustain is equally profound. A number of rulers of Indian states and big zamindars faced with the uncertainties, actively sided with the British. Recognising this, Governor General Lord Canning was candid, “They (the princes) acted as the breakwaters to the storm which could have otherwise swept us in one great wave”.

The British response, underlined the unmistakable lesson: Indian freedom struggle had to be an anti-feudal struggle. Unless the resistance against agrarian distress of the vast masses of peasantry was harnessed, the independence movement would never succeed.

The British also drew their own lesson of 1857. They could not sustain British rule in India by allowing the Hindus, Muslims and the feudal princes to share a common cause. British chronicler Thomas Lowe observed, “the cow killer and the cow worshipper, the pig hater and the pig eater had revolted together”. Similar recurrence had to be prevented! Naturally, this led to the aggressive pursuit of ‘divide and rule’.

The Communists absorbed these lessons in setting out their role in the freedom struggle.


It is obvious that while the Communist Party was committed to absorb the various streams and episodes of the localised struggles of Indian people against the British rule, the immediate inspiration was the success of the great October revolution. The particular appeal of Lenin in his Colonial Thesis led to the formation of Communist Party, not just in India but, elsewhere initially by small groups of revolutionaries.  A common feature was the role played by émigrés who embraced Marxism in different parts of Europe. Muzaffar Ahmed had observed, “Communist Party of India was the extended form of the Party organisation as set up abroad”. This was unmistakably brought out from the Peshawar Communist Conspiracy case, slapped by the British in 1922-23 where Indian Communists were put on trial.  Of the ten accused as many as nine were members of the Party’s émigré unit. That the British rulers were alarmed by the implications of Communist Party formation becomes obvious from the severe persecution of the nascent political formation through foisting of several conspiracy cases; Peshawar Conspiracy Case (1922-23), Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy case (1924) and the most infamous Meerut Conspiracy case (1929) where 31 prominent leaders of the CPI were sentenced.

But, undaunted by what was in store, the new-born was impatient to impact, immediately moving a resolution for complete independence in the Ahmedabad session of the Congress in 1921. Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Swami Kumaranand moved the resolution on behalf of the Party in articulating the most vital aspirations of the freedom struggle. The resolution for Poorna Azadi was eventually adopted by the Congress only in 1929.


The Communists resolution in the Ahmedabad AICC session was preceded by an open letter by M N Roy and Abani Mukherjee in which they urged the Congress to “make the minimum demands of the trade unions its own demands; let it make the programme of the Kisan Sabhas its own programme; and the time will soon come when the Congress will not be stopped by any obstacle; it will be backed by the irresistible strength of the entire population, consciously fighting for their material interests.’

It is this approach of the Communist Party which outlined the Communist participation in the freedom struggle, while being part of the overall national movement for emancipation from the British rule. The emphasis on class struggle and struggle on social issues was to mobilise the widest possible sections of workers and peasants and those who were at the receiving end of social discrimination and caste hierarchy. Obviously, this was not meant for freedom alone, but for a change in their material conditions with an ultimate aim of establishing socialism, undeniably a new trend in the national movement.

From the early days itself the Communist Party intervened on the question of building Hindu-Muslim unity and contesting the communal divisions promoted by the British and pursued by the Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League.

Yet another aspect of the Communist intervention was on social issues, such as caste oppression, which were sought to be integrated with the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist agenda. The aim was not for reforming the caste system but for its abolition.

The peasantry initially mobilised by the Congress were later disillusioned by the latter’s refusal to oppose the feudals. This led to growing awareness among them that they would have to organise on their own class demands. The local and regional struggles broke out and assumed great momentum particularly, as part of the post war upsurge. The Tebhaga struggle in Bengal, the numerous peasants struggle in different parts of Kerala, the Warli tribals in Maharashtra, the Bakshat struggle in Bihar, the Surma Valley in Assam, where big mobilisations of the peasantry could take place. Of course the biggest of these assumed the form of an armed struggle in Telangana against the Nizamshahi.

Similarly, several struggles took part in different parts of the country in important industrial sectors like Calcutta, Kanpur, Bombay, Madras and important industries like railways, coal mines, jute and cotton, tea gardens. The most notable of these workers struggles which assume political character was that of the Bombay workers coming out in open support of the Naval mutiny in Bombay.


The great impact of the October revolution and the establishment of Soviet Union aroused hope among the working people. It also held out a promise for various militant uncompromising anti-imperialist movements and political formations. These included the Gadar movement comprised of emigrants in Canada and US. These struggles of emigrants mainly from Punjab eventually led to the formation of Gadar Party. Most Gadarites coming back to India got drawn towards the Communist Party and got involved in the work largely through the Kisan Sabha.

A similar process also drew the revolutionary nationalists who were engaged in individual armed action against the British administration through their secret groups. Subsequently, large sections of these revolutionaries were drawn towards the uncompromising anti-imperialism of the Communist Party. Within these movements an ideological struggle emerged classically highlighted by Hindustan Socialist Republican Army led by Bhagat Singh and others. Similarly, groups in Bengal, Punjab and parts of North India were also drawn towards the Communist Party.

Another important development was the formation of the Congress Socialist Party. While wedded to the Congress as the most important political formation in the national movement, sections of Congress who were disillusioned with the compromises by the Congress leadership formed the Congress Socialist Party. Simultaneously, the CSP also growingly realised the importance of mobilising working people headed by the working class in the freedom struggle and came closer to the Communists.  There was of course a basic difference in emphasis. The Congress Socialists aimed at working within Congress for its transformation into a real anti-imperialist movement, while the Communist Party’s basic approach was to develop working people led by the working class as an independent political force without any fundamental conflict with the Congress. This trend continued with Communist working both within the Congress and the CSP. But, eventually, this led to a split with important Congress Socialist Party leaders also becoming part of the Communist Party.

The Communist Party recognised the importance of pursuing its distinct objective while at the same time engaging with other militant anti-imperialist political formations actually enabling it to draw in a wider section of patriots.


Along with the formation of the CPI in 1920, the trade union organisation, AITUC, also came into existence in the same year. Despite certain reformist tendencies in the initial phase, the participation of Communists in the trade union paved the way for a very broad based trade union platform.

In the light of the growing mass struggles in the 30s the need for broad based all India organisations was felt. This culminated in the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), All India Students’ Federation (AISF) and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in 1936. In a short while these platforms and organisations emerged as very powerful unifying instruments of these respective sections of the intellectuals. These came to be led by the Communists and proved to be powerful vehicles for unifying the people to take up the specific class and mass issues. They also played the role of strengthening the independence movement by mobilising wide sections  and also acting as bulwark against tendencies of the British government inspired policy of ‘divide and rule’.


The sustained work among the workers, peasants and the masses in the war period  (1939-45), despite the ban on the Party for most of this time, the Party organisation expanded in certain areas. The post-war upsurge of mass struggles saw the CPI and mass organisations playing a big role in the industrial strike actions, the agrarian struggles and student protests. The political interventions in support of the RIN revolt and for release of INA prisoners saw the key role of the Communists. It hastened the process of transfer of power and the departure of the British.


The threat that we face today is unprecedented. The vision that inspired the Communists and their participation and immense sacrifices during the freedom struggle was for an independent India organised as a  modern forward looking democratic and secular republic. Ironically, those forces who had no role to play in the freedom struggle of the country and at best ended up in disrupting the unity of the people in that historic struggle, are seeing the Communists as a major bulwark against their designs. Therefore, the observation of the centenary of the formation of the Communist Party can only be meaningful with a resolute defence of our role in the freedom struggle and the Constitutional values that directly sprung out of that glorious legacy.