Venkatrama Sastri, husband of Dr Atchamamba was also arrested in connection with the Madras Conspiracy case on the charge that he had been providing us with cover addresses and that he was one of the organisers of the underground apparatus. As I told you earlier, they were all defended by Batchu Jagannadham, a leading advocate of the Madras High Court. He had been defending our cases from the very beginning. Later on, he became a High Court Judge and retired as such. Another important activity of mine during that period was my visit to Kerala. It was in the middle of the year 1940. The main purpose of the visit was to explain the party policies and programmes to various socialist groups in that state. Most of the comrades were underground from Kannanur to Palghat. First, I contacted comrade EMS Namboodiripad who was taking shelter in a fisherman’s or a poor peasant’s family. Since he was a very well known leader, he was prohibited from even moving out of the small hut. He used to confine himself to the thatched house the whole day. He used to take bath and wash his clothes only during the nights. For that, he used to take only a few hours; the remaining period he was limited to the hut. It was like a solitary confinement where sometimes he had to urinate and answer the nature’s call. One remarkable feature of EMS was that though he hailed from an orthodox Brahmin family of Namboodris and was very much a scholar of Sanskrit and puranas, he was able to mix with the people from the weaker sections, observe their rituals and even take the food prepared by them, including the fish curry. Another important feature which I found out there was about a young boy aged around 12 or 14 years, who used to act as a courier for us. It was he who took me from one place to other linking up the comrades. His name was Kunhi Anandan. Later on, he became one of the organisers of the party. Later, He left for Berlin where he mastered the German language and became a correspondent. Even now, he contributes articles on international relations from GDR and to the Blitz.
Another significant dimension of the Kerala underground movement was that they held large scale anti-war demonstrations in early 1940 and had to face severe repression. At one or two places, they even violently clashed with the police. One or two policemen were killed in the clashes. E K Nayanar has referred to those places in his autobiography. Many of the leading comrades were brutally hunted down by the police while others had to go underground in the forests. A big nationwide campaign was unleashed demanding the release of those comrades. On the close heels of that incident, the landlords and the police launched a collective offensive against the communists in Kayyur. There too a constable was killed in the clashes and tremendous repression was mounted on all the party sympathisers. Four of our active supporters or workers were sentenced to death in that connection. They were hanged in 1943. We could not save them despite an effective campaign for their acquittal. I, comrade Joshi and comrade Krishna Pillai visited those heroic comrades at jail before they were hanged. We also visited their families. By then, the ban on the communist party was off and we were able to move openly. Those comrades, who were sentenced to death, did not show any sign of mental breakdown. They proudly said they had done their work and it was for others to carry forward the mantle of the party in the state. That was one of the most inspiring deeds of the Kerala comrades and the party as a whole.
In 1942, after occupying the whole of Europe, the German dictator Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The British government was forced to declare that it was with the Soviet Union in its fight against the marauding Nazi armies. It also explicitly announced that it was very much determined to put an end to Hitler’s blitzkrieg. The British Prime Minister’s statement to that effect was widely welcomed by the communists the world over because till that time, it was widely believed that once Hitler attacks Russia, the British would support him to the hilt and take his anti-communist crusade to its logical conclusion. However, there was a widespread hatred for the German leader for the bloody war with which he drenched the whole of European towns and cities. His constant bombing of the United Kingdom and the battle of Britain which Hitler lost narrowly made him quite unpopular among the British. In such circumstances, even the ruling classes in Britain apprehended that if the Germans were successful in destroying the Soviet Union, ultimately the whole of UK would be the target. Another important factor that forced the British government to change its stance was the powerful anti-fascist movement carried out by the communists all over the world, including Britain, right from 1932. All the sections of the British society were against the growth of fascism anywhere in Europe and the ruling classes could have ignored the public opinion only at their peril. Hitler was the enemy of humanity and no section of the British society would have allowed their government to support him, not even for strategic or ideological reasons. In any case, both the class interests and the strong public opinion forced the British government to dramatically change its war strategy.
However, as we all know, neither the British nor the Americans who intervened in the war at a later stage were keen on thwarting the forward march of the invading Nazi armies on the ground. They wanted the Germans to bleed the Soviets and planned to take control of the situation only when both the warring countries get weakened militarily and economically. In fact, that was what Harry Truman, the then vice-president of the United States, said in one of his speeches on the ongoing war. In any case, it was historically good that both the countries did not join hands with Hitler to defeat the Soviet Union. On the propaganda front, the decision of the United Kingdom and the United States to back Russia and China – though not militarily – which were fighting the Nazi and the imperialist forces, was in effect, a psychological victory for communism over the retrograde and repulsive ideology of fascism. In fact, China had been fighting the imperialist forces of Japan from as early as 1931. Obviously, there was this question of what should be the attitude of the Communist Party of India towards the British Empire in the changed circumstances because right from September 1939 when the war began in Europe till the Germans attacked Russia in early 1942 the slogan of the communists in almost all the countries was ‘death to fascism and imperialism’. It was also a known fact that the imperialist governments supported the Germans in the interim period of war till they themselves came under attack by the Nazi armies. Therefore, a realisation dawned on the communists that further continuation of war – the attack on the Soviet Union included – would have disastrous consequences for the humanity as a whole and that a peaceful settlement should be arrived at to end the war. However, the countries that were attacked and destroyed by the Hitler armies were not ready for a peaceful agreement. They thought any peaceful settlement would be akin to providing a major concession to the Nazis that could put their own interests at stake. The ruling classes of Europe were not prepared to think even on the lines of a negotiated settlement, but the communists felt that any further continuation of the war would wreak havoc on the people and destroy the progressive working class movement not only in Europe but also the whole world. As a result, Russia settled for an agreement that did not include either annexation of Germany or huge reparations. It settled the war peacefully in a fair manner. The question of whether or not a just settlement would help the further growth of the communist movement in the world was widely debated and there were conflicting views all over. The main reason for such a paradoxical stance was that after occupying a major portion of Europe, Hitler was determined to attack the Soviet Union and annex a big part of it. Naturally, he would not have settled for less leave alone peace. The imperialist countries which faced the wrath of the Nazis were not ready to let Germany off the hook in turn for peace; they were seething with rage for a considerable revenge. The communist parties of various European states too were divided on the issue of a peaceful settlement. Though they raised a banner of revolt against their own governments for their support to Hitler in the initial phase of the war and their refusal to join hands with communist Russia in the fight against the fascist forces, their own countries were lethally bombed by the German air force fighter jets. It would have been quite impossible for them to take the peace process to the masses which had been ravaged in the onslaught of the German forces and with the security of their countries at stake. So they were against any sort of a just or a peaceful agreement.
As regards the British Communist Party, there was a clear change in the leadership on the question of peace. Harry Polit was not prepared to lead the party in that confusion and comrade Rajani Palme Dutt had to take over the leadership role. He was the acting secretary of the BCP for a certain time. The British communists had been in the forefront in the campaign against fascism for over a decade, so the idea of an immediate settlement with the Nazis that Russia came up with was very difficult to digest for them. Peace was one thing, but they were under constant aerial bombardment by the Germans. Therefore, the issue before them was defending their sovereignty. Peace came last on their minds. I don’t exactly remember if there was change in the BCP’s stand during Dutt’s short and interim tenure as the secretary. I have to refer to the documents to tell exactly what happened then.
Another important aspect related to the war was that we in India welcomed the Soviet-German treaty on non-aggression of 1938 through various articles in the communist journals – it’s another matter that the Germans attacked Russia later. We put out the rationale that the treaty was the need of the hour since the imperialist countries did not heed the call of Russia for a united offensive against the Nazi and Fascist forces in Europe; that the imperialist forces were instigating Germany to attack the Soviet Union from Poland; that Poland was refusing to have any strategic tie-up with the Russians; that Russia needed time to spruce up its military and strategic reserves to take the Nazis head on in the event of a war. In such circumstances, a treaty of mutual non-aggression was necessary to ward off an immediate attack on Russia by the Germans. That was our understanding and justification for the signing of the treaty. Eventually, Germany invaded Poland with the sole intention of attacking Russia. That was the result of the sabotage of the 1938 Munich agreement by the Chamberlain and the French governments along with Czechoslovakia which was under the leadership of a bourgeois government led by Benishe and Masseric. Czechoslovakia refused to take the Soviet help to stop the advance of the German forces from Poland. Even then, Britain and France were not prepared to come on board with Russia to scuttle Hitler’s invasion plans. The Czechoslovakians allowed their own country to be occupied by German forces in blatant contravention of the Munich agreement. From that particular development, Soviet Union had to take its own course. However, Hitler was not ready for battle on two fronts simultaneously. It was only a year after he consolidated his hold on Poland and Czechoslovakia and eventually on the whole of Europe that he dared to open the Russian front. His plan was to occupy the whole of Europe, including the UK, before he could invade the Soviet Union. So Russia’s honouring of the mutual non-aggression pact with Germany in the interim period per se can’t be termed as a ‘betrayal’ of the anti-fascist campaign. It was an inevitable measure in self-defence and boosting its own military strength, for, the Russians had no illusions on Hitler’s commitment to peace with the communists.
As regards the position of the Communist Party of India on the Soviet approach towards war in general and Hitler’s Germany in particular, there were no contradictions. We were very clear and united in our support for the Russian stand. In the aftermath of Germany’s invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia, the Russian forces marched to the Ukrainian front – rather it was the relocation of the armed forces. Previously, the front was under the occupation of the Polish army. Russia also took over the three independent Baltic States on which Hitler had an eye. They were of immense strategic importance to Germany in case of a war with Russia, but the Soviets upset their plan with a pre-emptive march. A few years after the war, all the three Baltic States were merged with the Soviet Union with the consent of the respective provincial governments. Similarly, we defended the Soviet Union when it smashed the defensive line of the Finnish and took over the western parts of Finland to defend Leningrad. It had to resort to such action only after the Finnish government refused to sign up the mutual non-aggression treaty or give any guarantees to prevent the German armies from marching into Russia. Ultimately, Finland was forced to sign the treaty. It had no other go except sign the non-aggression pact lest the Soviets would occupy the whole of Finland. Those actions of the Soviets later were proved to be correct strategically when finally Germany declared an all-out war against Russia. The Soviets were in a much stronger position to defend Leningrad.
If Hitler’s armies had been allowed to come near the Mannheim Line (Finland), Leningrad would have fallen in no time and that would have given Germany a tremendous advantage to occupy Moscow. However, the heroic battle of Leningrad put paid to Hitler’s invasion plans. Lakhs of Leningrad citizens – though blockaded on all sides by the German forces and were left with meagre food supplies – stayed on bravely often starving for over 1,000 days before the Red Army could launch a massive offensive against the invaders. Throughout the historic battle of Leningrad we stood by the Soviet Union. However, there was an ideological debate in the party on what should be our approach towards the British Empire in the Indian context – the national struggle for independence – when it had already pledged its support to the Soviet Union in the fight against fascism. From early 1939 till the end of 1941, we had been demanding the Congress to intensify the national movement and force the British out of India. By then, the British Empire was crumbling under its own weight. We were highly critical of the Congress approach then. We said: “The Congress-led Satyagraha and non-violent struggles are only symbolic measures which will in no way fetch independence for the country. They only want to arrive at a compromise with the British Empire and support the imperialist forces in the war after obtaining nominal concessions.” So, we advocated a militant struggle to throw out the imperial regime taking advantage of the war conditions. However, in due course of the war, the British government declared that it would do whatever was possible in its power to fight Hitler and ensure the defeat of Germany at the hands of the allied powers. Immediately after the British announcement, we were in two minds – whether we should continue the battle against fascism with the help of the imperialist forces or fight the British Empire in India as we had been demanding from the beginning. Of course, communists were a minor force in the country, but then the Left sympathisers – who were in large numbers – were very much part of the national movement led by the Congress and other nationalist groups. If we gathered all the Leftist elements in the country and waged an intense struggle against the imperial government that would have weakened the British Empire in its fight against the Nazis. That question was seriously debated at all levels within the party as well as outside.
As far as our party’s stand was concerned, I clearly remember I wrote an article for the underground paper that we were running in Madras. In the essay I wrote: “Though we want the Soviet Union to win and Hitler defeated, we need not take the declaration of the British Empire pledging support for the war against fascism as ‘sincere’ and at its face value. In practice, they may not mobilise forces in support of the Soviets on the ground to repel the German onslaught. The imperialist forces would allow Germany to bleed Russia and take advantage of such a scenario. Therefore, we must not have any illusions on the open declaration of support by the British. Theirs is a bald declaration. We must understand this clearly. The best way to force the British Empire to join the fight against fascists would be to intensify the struggle for independence, achieve it, and then, mobilise our own people and resources in support of Russia.” That article was also published in English in the journal brought out by the party centre in Bombay.
In the meanwhile, there was a big debate in the party on the question of whether or not to intensify the struggle against the imperial government in India. As Hitler’s armies were advancing without facing much resistance, there was a general feeling among the comrades that the Soviet Union was in real danger. All the party members and Left sympathisers were very anxious with the developments on the war front. They wanted the Soviets to win, but were very restless with the thought that if Russia were to be defeated what would be the fate of the socialist movement in the world. Therefore, we came to the understanding that we should provide a breathing space to the British government so as to not distract it from its concentration on the war against fascism and that we should not do anything that may hamper the British mobilisation of resources and manpower from India to fight Germany. The question then was how to implement our decision when the British were not heeding the advice of the Congress and the Muslim League? They were not prepared even to concede the nominal demands put forth by the national movement.
Also, we had to face another peculiar problem even after our objective analysis of the international situation. The national movement – a majority of the freedom fighters – was of the strong opinion that now was the time to strike the hammer on the imperial rule. The British Empire was considerably weakened in the war and if the national struggle was intensified they would be forced to concede political independence to the country. At the same time, no section of the national movement said the Soviet should not win or that Germany should dominate Russia. They were all united on the question of fighting the bigger evil of fascism, but one section was of the opinion that it was the opportune time to step up the national movement and force the British out of the country. That section did not bother about what would happen to the Soviet Union. Nehru, to some extent, the Left elements in the Congress and the communists all wished that Russia should defeat Germany. While there was a serious discussion on this whole issue in the country, all the top leaders of the CPI were interned at the Deoli detention camp in Rajasthan. They had no communication with the outside world. Among the leaders detained were BTR, Dange and the third was Bharadwaj or Ghate. Bharadwaj was basically from UP, but he was working with the BVCI railway trade union in Ahmedabad before he was arrested. They managed to send a document, rather a thesis, which outlined the need to support the Soviet Union in the war against fascism. They advocated a clear shift in the party line that called upon the communists to support every effort of the British in the war against the fascist forces. By then, our underground apparatus in Bombay was active. The politburo met there to finalise the party’s stand and declare it publicly. Adhikari, PC Joshi and a few others, including me, attended the meet. Since a majority of the top leaders were arrested before the start of the war, I was co-opted into the PB as the representative of the movement in the south.
We discussed the international and the national situation at length though I don’t consider my contribution here as of any significance. But I want to recall one important issue. Adhikari and others were of the view that we should not come out in support of the British government openly and that we should put forward the demand for independence as a pre-condition for our support. Comrade PC Joshi was the secretary and the setting up of the UG apparatus in Bombay goes entirely to his credit. He was able to maintain contacts with all the important comrades in the country during the whole proscription period. He also played a key role in the running of the party journal The National Front and in the formation of various mass organisations affiliated to the Left movement. In my opinion, he was an important leader who contributed a lot to the development of the party in the country from 1935 to 42 or 43. At the PB meeting, his main contention was how to put the party line before the cadres and the masses effectively. He agreed with everybody else at the meet that we should do everything that we could to help the Soviet Union. There was broad understanding that if the Soviet loses the war, our independence too would remain a distant dream. However, the whole issue before us was how to convince the people that our support to the British in the war would advance our cause for independence. Our support should be presented to the masses solely from the Indian context – of achieving national independence – and not from the angle of protecting the interests of the Soviet Union (in its fight against the German forces). That was Joshi’s reasoning and also the basic understanding of the party. I remember the discussions went on day in and day out for about three weeks at one of our dens in Bombay.
Finally, Joshi was successful in coming out with a unique line of the party as a whole. It was stated in the open declaration that: “This (Second World War) is a peoples’ war. Imperialism has become a prisoner in this peoples’ war. The victory in this war would not be the victory of the British, but the triumph of the people. When victory is achieved (over fascism) finally, it would be the Soviet Union that would represent the aspirations of the people the world over. Though the British and other imperialist forces are temporary allies, they would not be in a position (later) to stop the peoples of the world in their march towards freedom.”
I remember correctly that document was titled From Peoples’ War to the Freedom Front. The party’s line or rather Joshi’s formulation was widely accepted by the Leftists in the country. Comrade Chandram and others from Andhra also supported the new line. There was no opposition whatsoever to our ideological conception on the w
hole international situation in general, but there were some nationalist comrades like Batliwala who did not like the idea of our party’s support to the British in the war effort. Ajay refused to endorse the Deoli document since we had been cultivating for long the idea of intensifying the national movement for independence. They did not want the party to support the British in the war without obtaining major concessions for the national movement. However, the conditions changed swiftly by the end of December 1941 when the German armies reached the strategic heights of capturing Moscow after the fierce battle of Leningrad. Just when Hitler was waging a bloody battle to take over Moscow, the Japanese air force fighter jets bombed the Pearl Harbour prompting the United States to intervene. By then, Japan was in control of the whole of South-East Asia. In such a situation, the British imperialists were also under severe pressure to announce major concessions to the national movement in India, but at the same time, they wanted to mop up whatever resources and manpower were possible from India for the war effort without giving any substantial political freedoms. They were prepared to set up an interim nationalist government provided the Congress committed itself to the full support of the Indians to the British war efforts back in Europe. But the Congress declined the British offer terming it as far from satisfying.
After the negotiations broke down between the Congress and the imperial government, the former egged on with the nationalist movement. Gandhi gave a call for a do-or-die battle whereas Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were not for such a harsh response. They were clear on the need to terminate the threat of fascism to world peace in the form of support to the Soviet Union which would also mean support to the British war efforts. Obtaining major concessions for the freedom movement was the only contention and the Congress went by the decision of its majority members. They intensified the struggle and the imperial government too stepped up its repressive measures. Ultimately, the Congress was banned in 1942 for fuelling sabotage activities like road blockades, disruption of train services and other official transactions. By then, the ban on us was lifted following a change in the party line with regard to our support to the British in the war effort. We came out and started the party centre legally at Bombay. In fact, we came out with our document on the international situation long before the German forces invaded Russia in June 1941. I think we released the document by the end of 1940. So when we came out openly we started propagating the need for unity between the Congress and the Muslim League if the country were to put up a united face before the British for independence.
What those people – who waged a bloody battle against the British rule in India in the name of Fifth Column – did was nothing short of a reckless and stupid thing. Some of the top Congress leaders too were involved in that fruitless, but violent campaign. Of course, we did not take up the issue seriously, but denounced the people who were involved with the Fifth Column. We did not urge Gandhi or Nehru to restrain the extremist elements in the Congress. However, we did contact Subhash Chandra Bose (Netaji) when he escaped from internment and went to Germany and Japan to organise the Indian National Army. We made it clear to him though his intentions were good; his approach (of seeking Nazi Germany and the imperialist Japan’s help to fight the British) was not going to solve the root problem of imperialism and that India was not going to be freed that easily. Even if he were to be successful in bleeding the British in India, the Anglo domination would be replaced by Japan’s hegemony in the whole of Asia. So, he should not have any illusions on Japan’s intention of helping the national struggle militarily. Though we may have criticised his action purely for ideological reasons, but to term his whole effort in mobilising the armed cadre with the help of the Japanese to free India through military means as unacceptable or unviable would have isolated the communist movement from the general masses.
We also took a firm stand during the war period that there should be no general strike; instead the working class should strive for more production. To hamper the production for war efforts would not have been sensible in general terms. If we had done that and got carried away by nationalist upsurge, the whole effort to defend the country as well as fight the Nazis would have been considerably weakened. However, to proffer that there should be no strike in the interim period (of war) would also be construed as a wrong slogan by the people. The minimal livelihood of the workers had to be defended. While defending their livelihood by encouraging them to start the war production we had to politically educate them on the prevailing international situation. But things were entirely different on the ground from what we thought we should do on behalf of the party. The situation turned worse with the workers, including the municipal employees, joining the strike and disrupting normal life. I remember in Andhra, the municipal workers went on a general strike. Normally, it would be the people who would suffer the most if the civic workers resort to strike during the conflict period. We were not in a position to oppose the civic strike on the grounds that it would affect the whole war effort. Gandhi too went on an indefinite past demanding national sovereignty. The political atmosphere was surcharged in the country and when various socialist groups approached us in the underground for a joint demonstration in Bombay, we clearly refused.
Naturally, the communists commanded quite a considerable influence on the working classes. Though we did not have a nationwide base, the national ferment was such that even a call by us to revolt would have send ominous signals to the British Empire. And, that was not our intention or approach. Every trade union, including the textile mill workers, was opposed to the British. We could not have restrained them openly and distance ourselves from the patriotic movement. We could not have presented ourselves as openly supporting the British war effort and alienate the party from the national mainstream. Where this understanding did came from? Any move on our part to hamper the production would have immensely harmed the war effort which in turn would weaken the Soviet Union that was already in danger. That was the wrong understanding of the total situation. In 1951, when we went to the Soviet Union and explained our problem, comrade Stalin said ours was a wrong line and that we should have integrated the Left movement with that of the mainstream nationalist movement. However, he commended our stand when it came to the international situation, more so during the war against Nazi Germany. He objectively analysed that our movement failed to practically integrate itself with the huge swathe of masses in the national struggle for freedom. Even now that question on what we could have done then is being debated. We need not have gone to the extent of blockading the railways and the roadways and hamper the war production by calling general strikes, but we could have refused to cooperate with the British explicitly or we could have resorted to peaceful means of protest like undertaking Satyagraha and force the imperial government to give up its administrative and political control over the country.
How the British would have reacted to such a plan of action is debatable though, but we should have done it. We did not even consider the need to protest and mobilise the people against the foreign rule. Ultimately, what saved us, despite our incoherent political line, was our tireless campaign for the release of Congress leaders and our persistent demand for the formation of a national government headed by the Congress insofar as unifying the people of the country was concerned. In fact, during that campaign thousands of our party workers were arrested and thrown into jails. Whereas we carried out such demonstrations though legality was bestowed on us, the Congress rallies and public meetings were banned by the government. That was the important dimension of our party and people could not have perceived us as the stooges of the British for we had been demanding the release of Congress leaders even while opposing the general strikes and the violent activities of the Fifth Column including Subhash Chandra Bose. Our actions then might have hampered the war production to some extent, but we had to respond to the national call. At the same time, we carried out a powerful political campaign that war expenditure and the deteriorating economic conditions should not be cited as the reasons for imposing tremendous burden on the people, especially the working class and the peasantry. We felt that additional resources could be mobilised by taxing only the rich. We also demanded that the government give up repressive measures to tackle the nationalist upsurge.
That stand of ours was the second important aspect that made people realise that we were pro-poor and striving for an egalitarian society. During the same period, we took up many basic issues that affected the economically weaker sections like large scale bureaucratic corruption at all the levels. That also improved our standing among the masses. More than two aspects, apart from the general political atmosphere, were there which we recorded clearly in our party documents. First, when the war finally ended and the trial related to the Indian National Army started, we took a firm stand that the trial should be withdrawn on the grounds that its actions were solely motivated by patriotic concerns and not intended to sabotage the government’s war efforts. In support of our demand for the annulment of the trial we organised general strikes and hartals. After the initial setback to our movement, we were able to increase our weight among the working class, the peasantry and also the general masses with our demand for the release of INA cadre and grant of complete independence to the country. Our line of political action retrieved the party from suffering further damage though there was only a thin line that differentiated our stand in the post-war period. Second, we came out openly in support of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt. A mammoth working class demonstration was organised to support the RIN cadre. Though the rally was not entirely ours – there was a natural upsurge, we were in the forefront of the agitation. The British army and the police shot at us. Some forty of our leading party cadres and their family members were killed in the firing. People saw all that for themselves. Exactly at the same time, the Congress was against the RIN revolt whereas we were there in the forefront to defend the Navy personnel. That agitation also restored our image, but the damage had already been done on account of our political line in the conflict period. We failed to link the international and the national perspective of the party properly and explain the same to the masses effectively.
Even in the earlier period between 1937 and 1940, comrade Sardesai had written an article in The National Front that our movement was only a subordinate to the world peoples’ struggle and that we should postpone our campaign for national independence for the sake of the Soviet Union. However, we repudiated his views saying that was not our understanding and that there should be no contradiction between the national struggle and the party’s international perspective, especially related to the attack on the Soviet Union. We also said that our struggle for independence could not be a subordinate to the world peoples’ struggle. In the whole ideological tussle, we lost out on the nationalist struggle. At least, that was the perception of the general masses. Now, people may say anything on our role during the entire war period. Naturally, there were ideological differences among the top party leadership. Joshi was denounced for expounding a political line that did not give much primacy to the nationalist struggle. Of course, he had gone a little too far in formulating the party’s line on the whole international situation, which of course was quite popular. However, there are many who defend his understanding even now invoking Russia’s victory over the fascist forces. I would say it was not only the Soviet Union’s victory, but also our national struggle that ultimately forced the British Empire to grant absolute political independence to India. If Soviet’s victory could have liberated the entire colonial world, we would not have bothered to take up the nationalist movement. In any case, it was a serious failure on the part of our movement not to have explicitly endorsed the national struggle.
As I referred to earlier, one of the reasons that retrieved our image was our espousing of various public issues. In that, one of the biggest campaigns that we launched throughout the country was to provide relief to the people affected by the Great Bengal Famine. Our party mobilised doctors and relief squads from various parts of the country in large numbers to help the poor masses of Bengal. We also collected huge funds and food grains across the country to be handed over to the relief camps set up in the severely affected regions.
We came out in the open by the June 1942 and we had the responsibility of explaining the new line of the party to the cadres and the masses. We visited various places in the country for the purpose. I remember when I visited Gudivada, the Congress workers tried to disrupt our meet, but we stood our ground. We organised a rally with over 10,000 workers and the Congress sympathisers surrounded the dais at the public meeting venue. They demanded an explanation and we said no. We did not yield to their demand. Consequently, there was a big clash, but we managed to protect ourselves. Dandamudi Rajagopala Rao was there to save us. They all stood by us in that hour of need. They said what we did – not to yield to the Congress workers – was quite right. Similarly, there was a big scuffle at Amruthaluru in Tenali area. There Gangadhar Rao and other comrades stood up and beat them back. Following those incidents, we had to organise our peoples’ volunteer corps with lathis. There were four groups for providing multi-level security – more or less on the lines of the military police – at the public meeting venues. Even then the Congress workers came in large numbers to disrupt our meetings. The squads were able to retaliate since they were an organised force. The Congress hooligans could not break the four-tier security cordon at any place thereafter.
I can recall another instance in connection with our campaign in the latter part of 1943. The Provincial Congress Committee met at Eluru to discuss its future political strategy. Katragadda Narayana Rao was a prominent Congress leader then. We sent him to the meet with the sole aim of putting forward our point of view. The venue was the Eluru National School. Katragadda Narayanarao was manhandled by the hardcore Congress workers. When the scuffle was on, our own group of youngsters was there outside. When we heard the screams we broke into the meeting hall and rescued him. The police arrived in no time and Congress leader Sanjiva Reddy came to pacify us. He sent away the police saying there was no problem with the young groups. In that way, we had to defend our leading comrades as well as our gatherings. Such a situation continued from 1942 to 1945 and when finally the Congress leaders were released from jails in 1945, we were all expelled gradually from the Congress branding us as anti-nationals. That process was completed before the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan and the election of the Constituent Assembly.
The Congress launched a no-holds-bar slander campaign against the Communist Party of India. So, P C Joshi had to write a three-volume reply to the charges levelled by the Congress. He urged Gandhi to forge a united front of the CPI and the Congress. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi had posed certain ideological questions to our party and Joshi had to reply them. During the whole post-war explanation campaign, we did not lose the support of the Left sympathisers and neither did our active cadre quit the party. The Soviet had won the war and it emerged all the stronger on the ideological front. The party’s line on supporting the British war effort to eliminate the scourge of Nazis was proved correct. So the question of ideological inconsistency did not arise. There was a strict discipline in the organisation and most of the communists rallied behind our party as the Soviet Union was still there strong and united. There was much hatred for fascism and imperialism of the Japanese variety. There was a strong communist movement in China and Japan started invading it in bits and pieces from 1931. Naturally, they supported the Chinese comrades. The political consciousness of communists at that time was highly evolved and as a result, they could not tolerate Netaji’s decision to align with the fascists in the fight against the imperial British government in the country. They asked him how he would be able to secure freedom for the country by joining hands with the Nazis of Germany and the imperialists of Japan. They described his action as that of jumping from the frying pan to the fire. The Leftists were convinced of the party line on the issue of the Indian National Army. Therefore, there was not much harm to our organisation ideologically or otherwise. However, the younger generations, carried as they were by patriotic upsurge, could not digest or understand our line. The main issue before them was securing political freedom and nothing else. So, they dubbed us as betrayers of the national cause when we opposed Netaji’s decision to align the INA with the fascists. They perceived us as allies of the British in the world war in which we wanted the Soviet Union to win. The main problem there was our failure in properly conceiving the whole idea of the international and national situation and putting it in simple ideological terms before the younger restive lot. We did correct ourselves later on the national issue, but the methodology that we adopted for doing so gave rise to many unanswered questions. Even now, there’s a debate on exactly what was the communist party’s stand with regard to the struggle for independence in the conflict era and thereafter. We didn’t think it apt to present our stand on the national movement clearly in our fervour of denouncing the biggest enemy – fascism. Though we had been denouncing imperialism for long, the equations during the war created all sorts of misconceptions among the nationalists, including some pro-Left elements in the Congress. There was also another problem. Anybody who denounced British imperialism overtly was branded as a stooge of the Fifth Column by the government. It was there that we had to face a lot of criticism.
Informally though, it was agreed in the party circles that our stand on the national issue would cause us tremendous harm, but officially we did not say it as much. I don’t think even what I am saying now would be acceptable to the party. But that was the reality. Even if the party were to take corrective steps, there would not be much impact since it’s almost fifty years now. Hereafter, we should be very careful in taking a firm stand on the international situation without bypassing the national opinion. So, when we came out in 1942 legally, we did organise guerrilla squads since there was every possibility of the fascists occupying our country. As a part of pre-emptive efforts, we raised armed squad in different states. In case there was an attack by the Japanese, we were ready to fight even behind the official military lines. That need did not arise and the war took a different turn. The Japanese were finally driven out from the whole of Asia.
After the government lifted the ban on the communist party, our immediate priority was to set up the official organisational apparatus, especially the party centre, and mobilise public opinion in our favour. The official line of the party was explained to the leading cadre at the first official party congress that was held in early 1943. Before that, we had to set up the headquarters and bring out the party journal. I was called to take the responsibility of setting up the party centre and the publishing house in Bombay. The present Raj Bhavan was the place which housed the headquarters of the Maharashtra state committee of the party. It took nearly a year or so to establish the party centre and the publishing house (at Khetwadi), but after a few months, I was made in charge of training of the guerrilla groups in different parts of the country. I had to constantly move around the country for imparting training to the squads in armed resistance.
During the same period (in 1942), I and other comrades started the Prajashakti weekly in Andhra for propaganda purposes. Earlier, we had Navashakti and Swantantra Bharat. We started the press for Prajashakti at one of the compounds on the Seshachari Street. There were constant attacks on the press, so we had to be ready to face any eventuality. Once the Congress workers came in a big procession to attack us, but we resisted and beat them back. Rajeshwara Rao was very tall and easily identifiable. He was implicated in the attack case, but we arranged immediate bail for him. Comrade MB was taken into the state committee during the second conference of the state committee in 1938. He went to Bombay centre only after 1958 after the Amritsar party congress.
In Bombay, our publishing division was called the New Age press, but we named our journal as Peoples’ War. By then, we already had the New Age press at Madras, so that name was chosen for the Bombay press. After the war ended, we re-christened the party journal as New Age. We later started the Peoples’ Publishing House. I was in charge of the financial and organisational affairs. Comrade Adhikari planned and brought out various booklets and party documents. A series of books on Marx, Engel and Lenin’s writings were published. We also brought out plenty of documents on the international communist movement. In Andhra too, Prajashakti started functioning well with an office. The weekly was converted into a daily in 1945. It was the first daily of the communist party in India. Deshabhimani was still a weekly and only later did the Bengal comrades start Swadheenta. I don’t want to go into the details of training the guerrilla squads, but it’s a fact that we organised the armed squads. In the same period, our work among the peasantry and the working class developed very well. At the first congress of the party in 1943, we elected Rajeshwara Rao the secretary of the Andhra committee. I was asked to continue with my responsibilities at the party centre. I didn’t hold any organisation posts at the centre, but I was the overall in charge of the committees of south India. I was the coordinator between the movement in the south and the party centre besides looking after the training of guerrilla squads in various states. Krishna Pillai was the secretary of the Kerala committee.
We did our job quite well in Andhra. In 1943 I and Rajeshwara Rao drafted various circulars on how the organisation should be built and the cadre educated on various political issues. Rajeswararao wrote a book entitled Party Nirmanam. Comrade Adhikari had taken up the responsibility of bringing out documents on the history of the communist movement worldwide. They were translated into Telugu by Chalasani Vasudevarao. All that literature helped us in consolidating the organisation. When we were organising the party conference in 1943, the question of finances for the party centre as well as the state committees came up. As part of our efforts to raise funds for the party, we gave a call to all the leading comrades to sell off their properties and contribute the maximum returns to the party. Rajeshwara Rao, MB, M Subba Rao, Suryavathi and the leading comrades in different districts sold their properties and donated the returns to the party keeping aside only a minimum amount for the well-being of their aged mothers and other family members. At that time, our quota to centre was fixed at Rs. 50,000. We managed to raise the necessary funds and handed them over to the party headquarters. They were surprised over the way in which we pooled the resources. They doubted whether the comrades who contributed a major share of their properties could survive at all. I told the leadership that it was not a problem and if necessary, we would further collect funds from the people. Anyway, there was no need for communists to hold private property, but they had the responsibility of looking after their parents and elderly in the family. I told the leadership that we were not concerned with contributions of only the existing members and that more and more people would join the party and donate a substantial portion of their earnings. Besides, we could also rely on mass contributions. At the same time, we issued circulars to all our whole-timers that they should not bear more than three children. We were all united in our convictions, but there were some minor differences between the Andhra comrades and the party centre on the question of implementing the slogan of one-sixth or one-fifth share of the agricultural produce to the landholders by the tenants. Rajeshwara Rao contended that the conditions for taking such a slogan were not ripe in Andhra and it was difficult to implement it at the ground level since the tenants were willing to give even three-fourths of the total produce to the land owners. He argued that it would be a great achievement for the party if it was successful in bringing the share even to half. I supported the party centre’s line in the larger interests of the tenants. Naturally, the party centre dubbed the Andhra committee as ‘pro-rich’ and which, instead of fighting for the rights of the tenants, was trying to protect the interests of the landlords. The differences were quite genuine and the argument of the Andhra comrades was also right to the extent that the objective conditions in the state were not favourable for implementing the party centre’s decision. Slogan for propaganda purpose is quite a different thing, but when it comes to implementation, the situation has to be ripe. You can’t forcibly change the existing conditions unless people are prepared for it and ready to fight. If the people believe that a slogan is impossible to implement, they would not join the fight. We have to take the consciousness of the people and the objective conditions of a particular state into consideration before advancing any slogan. Propaganda slogan, agitation slogan and actionable slogans are three different aspects. We don’t realise this difference and mix the three creating confusion all around.
In any case, we could not advocate a correct political line relevant for those times and the existing conditions in Andhra. Hence, we failed to develop the movement as we should have taking into account our own understanding of the objective conditions. However, we were very active in mobilising various sections, mainly the peasantry, all over the state. We had committed young workers. I remember we organised a huge kisan conference at Vijayawada in 1944 apart from the district level meets. Over a lakh peasants attended the All India Kisan Sabha conference at Vijayawada which saw leading lights of the peasant movement Swamy Sahajananda, N G Ranga and Karyananda Sharma from Bihar on the stage. Earlier, we had organised such a conference at Bhakna, 30 miles away from Amritsar, in 1943. Comrades Parulekar, Bhavani Sen and Rasool attended that meeting. However, the way in which we organised the peasants’ meet at Vijayawada drew all round applause. We made arrangements for food for nearly 50,000 participants and mobilised around 4,000 volunteers. It was the biggest ever congregation of farmers in the country in those times. G Parthasarathy, who is now the advisor to the government, was the correspondent for The Hindu then. He told me later that he had seen many big conferences of the Congress before, but it was the first time that he saw a well organised huge congregation where not only the delegates but every participant was looked after properly, including the provision of food, accommodation and sanitation facilities.
Organising such a mammoth meeting was not difficult for us then. We were particular about each and every detail. Mobilisation of resources and volunteers and provision of facilities at the venue was done with great care. Even Rajeshwara Rao was capable of such a detailed planning and mobilisation. I remember the conference was held in April 1944. Those experiences at Vijayawada helped me a lot in the corresponding years with regard to organising events which involved lakhs of people. The Kisan Sabha was one of the biggest achievements of our party in Andhra. The next kisan conference was held in Netrakona (now it is in Bangladesh) in Bengal in 1945. In the interim period, we took up the de-silting of Bandar irrigation canal. The canal bed had become flat and there was no free flow of the irrigation water. The engineers could not take up the silt removal work for lack of sufficient labour force. So we came forward and took up the responsibility for nominal wages. We gave a call to the party members to join the work. We provided only food to the volunteers, but others were also given wages. The whole work related to the digging of the Bandar Canal and the East Bank Canal was completed in less than a month. It was quite a big achievement from the angle of mobilisation of the labourers and the party volunteers. Our work had a tremendous impact on the peasantry. At the same time, there was criticism from certain sections that what we did was too reformist. They said it was the responsibility of the government to maintain the canals. There were also differences in the Andhra committee on whether or not we should take up the huge work. However, most of the people appreciated our work thereby proving my contention right. The central committee also commended our cleaning act. In fact, at the Netrakona kisan conference, the Bandar Canal experience was given as a model to the delegates for implementation in their respective areas. Later, we took up digging of irrigation canals and de-silting of tanks on a massive scale in various villages of Andhra.