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Workers Vanguard No. 970

3 December 2010

The 1940s “Quit India” Movement

Stalinist Alliance with Churchill Betrayed Indian Revolution

The following originally appeared as a two-part article in Workers Hammer Nos. 131 and 132 (September/October and November/December 1992), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League. Both parts are reprinted below, incorporating a minor factual correction.


“The Indian scene [in 1947] was heavy with menace, but one thing at least gave [British Labour prime minister Major Clement] Attlee great satisfaction. How gratifying it was, he noted, that an old Haileybury School boy like himself [Sir Cyril Radcliffe] was being sent out to take on the task of drawing a line through the [Punjabi] homelands of eighty-eight million human beings.”

“In India, Sikhs and Hindus prowled the cars of ambushed trains slaughtering every circumcised male they found. In Pakistan, Moslems raced along the trains they had stopped, murdering every male who was not circumcised.”

—Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight

Fifty years ago India’s struggle for independence from Britain entered its final, decisive phase. Commonly known as the “Quit India” movement after the main slogan put out by Mohandas Karamchand (“Mahatma” or “great soul”) Gandhi’s bourgeois Indian National Congress in August 1942, this phase swelled to a crescendo between 1945 and 1946. Soon after this, the subcontinent was arbitrarily partitioned into an 80 per cent Hindu-dominated India and an Islamic-confessional Pakistan; a horrendous communal blood-bath was unleashed. The movement’s denouement in February 1948 presented an appropriately bizarre neocolonial spectacle: Britain’s last troops in India, the Somerset Light Infantry, disappeared marching westward through Bombay’s arched Gateway of India (where the “King Emperor” George V had landed in 1911) to the strains of “God Save the King” and “Auld Lang Syne,” played in parting salute by an Indian Navy honour guard band of Sikhs and Gurkhas.

Yet, at its tumultuous peak the mass upheaval, for a few crucial historic moments far outstripping the planned limits of its self-appointed minders and misleaders, had rocked the entire subcontinent, lifting it on to the very precipice of revolution. Millions of workers, soldiers, peasants, students and women, many flying Communist red flags alongside the Congress tricolour and the Muslim League’s green flag, defying British tank and machine-gun fire and even naval and aerial bombardment, jammed the streets and fields from Karachi to Calcutta. Cries of “Inquilab Zindabad!” (Long live the revolution!) filled the air. Armed peasants started forcibly seizing land and setting up “soviets.” And in February 1946 a powerful strike by ratings (enlisted men) of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay touched off an armed uprising by hundreds of thousands, including Royal Indian Air Force men, in that port and across the whole, electrified country, bringing it to a virtual standstill.

Britain had lost control. Posed pointblank was not only India’s political independence from two hundred and fifty years of the British jackboot; the social liberation of India’s toiling masses from millennia of indigenous caste, gender, communal and class oppression was also now suddenly within grasp. What was needed was a revolutionary vanguard party of India’s small but strategic and modern, urbanised industrial working class which could rally and draw behind it the millions of peasant poor and other oppressed, oust the British, and put the native capitalist-landlord alliance out of business, launching a direct offensive for both national and social liberation through capturing proletarian state power.

This policy, that of the Permanent Revolution, had been the programme of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the victorious October Revolution, thirty years earlier. That revolution had brought national and social liberation to the masses of backward Tsarist Russia, whose Tadzhik, Uzbek and other Central Asian peoples just on the other side of the Himalayan Pamirs from northern Kashmir) had been catapulted from the seventh century into the twentieth as a result. In India the toiling masses had seen the Russian Revolution as a beacon of hope.

Yet by midnight of 14 August 1947, when Congress prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru rose to address “free” India’s parliament of capitalists, landlords and princes, the spectacular upsurge had been derailed. Instead, a pro-imperialist alliance of the Congress bourgeoisie and the Muslim League landlords had successfully diverted the revolutionary momentum into British imperialism’s waiting trap, the nightmare of communalist Partition. India’s working masses had paid with their lives—and were now about to pay even more—for the absence of a revolutionary party to lead its millions in an independent struggle for workers power.

The new Muslim theocratic state of Pakistan (whose Punjabi-dominated west wing and Bengali east wing looked at each other across 1,000 miles of hostile Hindu Indian territory) was carved out of the living bodies of thoroughly interpenetrated peoples, precipitating the biggest forced population transfers and one of the ghastliest communal slaughters in history. And in this crime, the Labour government of imperialist Britain and their bourgeois-landlord alliance of lackeys in the Congress and Muslim League were fully aided and abetted by the treacherous Stalinist trinity of the Kremlin, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of India. For in this historic betrayal, Stalin was the mover, the CPGB the enforcer and the CPI the executor on the spot.

Lessons of the Chinese Revolution

The developing militant wave and the advent of World War II could have signalled the opening of great possibilities for a revolutionary party the size of the CPI. Instead the second imperialist war was to bring the nadir of Stalinist betrayal in India. To understand the CPI’s treachery on behalf of Churchill’s war effort it is necessary to take up the positions adopted by the Stalinised Comintern as against the Leninist tradition upheld by Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

The Russian Revolution in 1917 fully confirmed Trotsky’s prognosis that “the complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is conceivable only in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which would inevitably place on the order of the day not only democratic but socialistic tasks as well, would at the same time give a powerful impetus to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West could protect Russia from bourgeois restoration and assure it the possibility of rounding out the establishment of socialism” (“Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” [1939]).

Under the slogan of “socialism in one country” embraced by the conservative, nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy which had risen in the context of the isolated, war-weary and encircled Soviet workers state, the struggle for the extension of the revolution internationally was shelved in favour of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. This translated into defeat after defeat for the world proletariat and eventually transformed—after ruthless purges in most cases—the parties of the (Third) Communist International into tools of class-collaboration with their “own” bourgeoisies. In the colonial and neocolonial world it meant rejecting the lessons of October and resuscitating the old Menshevik formula of “two-stage” revolution. As in China earlier, this was to have a devastating effect on the revolutionary proletariat of India.

The tragedy of the Chinese Revolution of 1927-28 was a powerful negative confirmation of the permanent revolution, and it was over China that Trotsky extended his correct prognosis in Russia to all of the backward, colonial countries. The debate on China was whether or not to subordinate the Chinese workers and peasants to the native bourgeoisie in the form of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang in which the CP [Communist Party] was operating. When the Chinese CP proposed to leave the Kuomintang the plan was vetoed by the Comintern Executive on Stalin’s instruction. They were directed to hold down the class struggle against the “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisie in the cities and contain the peasant movement in the countryside. In early 1926 the Kuomintang itself was admitted to the International as an associate party. Only a few weeks later, on 20 March, Chiang carried out his first anti-communist coup, barring CP members from all leadership posts and demanding a list of all CP members in the Kuomintang. Under orders, the CP complied! After a challenge from the United Opposition leaders Trotsky and Zinoviev and during the crucial days of the Shanghai insurrection which began in March 1927, Stalin stuck to the policy. The main task in China for the Communists was “the further development of the Kuomintang.” On 12 April the Kuomintang army carried out a massacre which cost the lives of tens of thousands of Communists and militant workers who had laid down their arms at Stalin’s orders. This was “socialism in one country” in practice!

Congress—the Indian “Kuomintang”—and the CPI

“India,” Trotsky had noted in May 1930, “is the classic colonial country as Britain is the classic metropolis. All the viciousness of the ruling classes and every form of oppression that capitalism has used against the backward people of the East is most completely and frightfully summed up in the history of the gigantic colony on which the British imperialists have settled themselves like leeches for the past century and a half” (“The Revolution in India, Its Tasks and Dangers,” Writings of Leon Trotsky [1930]). Like pre-revolutionary Russia and China, the road to national liberation, agrarian reform, social equality and advancement lay in the programme of proletarian revolution, requiring a vanguard party defending the political independence of the working class. The weak national bourgeoisie, tied by a thousand threads to imperialism, could in no way carry out even the “democratic” tasks posed.

The Indian industrial bourgeoisie, which started growing towards the very end of the 19th century and expanded considerably during World War I, was still no match for British industrial and finance capital. The Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI—Indian section of the Trotskyist Fourth International) pointed out:

“Despite the advance of Indian capital, British capital remains in effective monopolist domination in banking, commerce, exchange, insurance, shipping, in the tea, coffee and rubber plantations, and in the jute industry. In iron and steel, Indian capital has been forced to come to terms with British capital, and even in the cotton industry, the home of Indian capital, the control of British capital through the managing agency system is very great.”

—BLPI Draft Programme

Indian reality emphatically underlined the revolutionary correctness of the perspective of permanent revolution. The Indian Trotskyists drew the correct conclusion that “the Indian bourgeoisie, shackled as it is to Imperialism, cannot play the historical role of the West-European bourgeoisie in liberating and developing the productive forces. The industrial advance of India demands absolutely the overthrow of Imperialism, with which Indian bourgeois interests are indissolubly bound, and the overthrow of which they are bound to resist” (ibid).

Faced with British imperialist intransigence, the weak and dependent Indian bourgeoisie sought methods of struggle that could pressure the colonial masters to make concessions without disturbing the social order by unleashing struggles of the masses that would threaten not just the British but also the Indian capitalists and their landlord brothers. The origins of Congress are instructive in this regard.

An English ex-civil servant of the Empire, A.O. Hume, was a founder of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Its stated third aim was “THE CONSOLIDATION OF THE UNION BETWEEN ENGLAND AND INDIA, BY SECURING THE MODIFICATION OF SUCH OF ITS CONDITIONS AS MAY BE UNJUST OR INJURIOUS TO THE LATTER COUNTRY” (The Indian Nationalist Movement, 1885-1947: Select documents, ed. B.N. Pandey). As its first president, W.C. Bonnerjee explained:

“Lord Dufferin...said there was no body of persons in this country who performed the functions which Her Majesty’s Opposition did in England...and as the English were necessarily ignorant of what was thought of them and their policy in native circles, it would be very desirable in the interests as well of the rulers as of the ruled that Indian politicians should meet yearly and point out to the Government in what respects the administration was defective and how it could be improved” (ibid).

Enter Gandhi. At the time he arrived on the nationalist political scene at the start of World War I, Gandhi could be found enthusiastically urging London’s Indians to “think imperially” and organising a Field Ambulance Training Corps as his personal contribution to the interimperialist war “effort.” Gandhi’s job was to extract as much as possible from the British, in the common interests of saving capitalism, while keeping the burgeoning and now increasingly militant struggles of the workers and peasants at bay. The textile magnate Ambalal Sarabhai put it succinctly when he said Gandhi “was the best guarantee against communism which India possessed” (D.A. Low, Congress and the Raj).

It was only after World War I that India’s modern proletariat, numbering five million by the second imperialist world war, emerged as a distinct force. The first great wave of strikes (1918-21) was triggered by mass immiseration under war conditions, a flu epidemic that killed 14 million, the Amritsar massacre in the wake of the draconian Rowlatt Act, and the impact of the 1917 Revolution. And it was the backdrop to Gandhi’s 1920-21 mass civil disobedience campaign for minimal constitutional reforms. The first six months of 1920 saw 200 strikes involving half a million workers, along with growing peasant struggles. Gandhi got cold feet, declaring that he had committed a “blunder of Himalayan proportions which had enabled ill-disposed persons, not true passive resisters at all, to perpetrate disorders.” In February 1922, on the eve of another passive resistance crawl, when 22 policemen were killed in the course of a peasant anti-rent agitation, Gandhi called off the entire non-cooperation movement, essentially going into purdah over the next decade. And the Congress told its supporters that withholding rent to the zemindars [landlords] was contrary to its policies and “the best interests of the country.” Gandhi re-emerged in the thirties when new waves of militant struggles broke out. He reiterated his opposition to “class war” and called for the “harmonious cooperation of labour and capital, the landlord and tenant.”

The situation in India not only cried out for a revolutionary solution but provided great opportunities for building a communist-led movement against colonial oppression and to overthrow capitalism. The prestige of the October Revolution was immense among the toiling masses. Founded among other places in revolutionary Tashkent in 1920, the CPI had early succumbed to the global anti-revolutionary policies emanating from Stalin’s Comintern after 1924; Stalin’s search for “peaceful coexistence” did not help the Indian Communists. In the late twenties they employed themselves with generally rightist plans for front organisations and multi-class parties. Then the “Third Period” had them pursuing sterile sectarian policies which condemned the Indian nationalists equally with the British imperialists.

In the popular front period (1935-39) they accepted the leadership of the Congress and “Gandhiji” as necessary for the first “democratic” stage of the revolution. And moreover, because Stalin was pursuing an alliance with “democratic” imperialist Britain, the CPI soft-pedalled the struggle against British imperialism, placing the emphasis on reforms and gradualist change. At the Seventh Congress of the Third International in Moscow in July-August 1935, the CPI was denounced for long-standing “left” sectarian errors and for using slogans such as “an Indian Workers’ and Peasants’ Soviet Republic,” and “confiscation of lands belonging to the zemindars (landlords) without compensation.” Even as late as March 1936 the Congress was characterised as “definitely a class organisation of the Indian bourgeoisie” in a CPI publication, but the new class-collaborationist line laid down by “India experts” for the CPGB, R. Palme Dutt and Ben Bradley, was:

“The National Congress can play a great part and a foremost part in the work of realising the anti-imperialist People’s Front. It is even possible that the National Congress by the further transformation of its organisation and programme may become the form of realisation of the anti-imperialist People’s Front” (quoted in S. Tagore, Against the Stream).

The CPI supported the Congress in the provincial elections of 1937. In 1936 a miserable and tokenistic Congress proposal for agricultural reform was lauded. In fact the Congress ministries of this period did next to nothing to alleviate the condition of the peasantry. Indicatively the only places where Congress ministries even talked about land reform were in areas where the landlords were to a large extent Muslims and the peasants Hindus, such as the United Provinces, Bihar and Madras.

At the same time the inception of Congress ministries in some parts of India gave the CPI more room to organise, and with growing mass disillusionment with Congress the CPI began to grow significantly. It developed strong roots in the working class in major industrial cities like Bombay, and considerable influence in student and peasant organisations. But it held the struggles back in the interests of the alliance with Congress. In November 1938, after the shootings of workers protesting anti-trade-union legislation introduced by the Congress ministry in Bombay, one “Congress Communist” (CPI entrist in Congress) told a protest rally: “Anger and sorrow have been kindled in our minds by the oppression that has been perpetrated on the workers of Bombay. Still, we are proceeding with restraint with our eyes fixed on national solidarity and unity.”

The CPI in World War II

During the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact the CPI as all the other parties of the Comintern (which would be formally liquidated by Stalin in 1943) denounced the “democratic” facade of the British imperialists in their war against Germany. Indeed in contrast to the Stalinists of His Majesty’s CPGB who displayed visible discomfort at Stalin’s about face (with its pro-German tilt), many militants of the CPI appear to have relished the opportunity to take a full-blooded stance against their hated main enemy. In the context of mounting anti-imperialist militancy, this line would have come increasingly into contradiction with the CPI’s continuing adherence to the Stalinist policy of a “first” “democratic” stage in alliance with the bourgeois Congress, provoking splits and opportunities for revolutionary regroupment. But when Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” was launched against the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the wartime alliance between Britain and the USSR was sealed, the Comintern instructed another sharp turn to the “People’s War Against Fascism” and all-out support for the war effort in the imperialist countries and their colonies. As late as July 1941 the CPI, lacking precise instructions from Stalin via the CPGB, however, had adopted a line which distinguished between the interimperialist war between the Allied and Axis powers and the need to defend the Soviet Union. A CPI manifesto issued at the time read in part:

“The Communist Party declares that the only way in which the Indian people can help in the just war which the Soviet is waging, is by fighting all the more vigorously for their own emancipation from the imperialist yoke. Our attitude towards the British Government and the imperialist war remains what it was.... We can render really effective aid to the Soviet Union, only as a free people. That is why our campaign for the demonstration of our support and solidarity with the Soviet Union, must be coupled with the exposure of the imperialist hypocrisy of the Churchills and Roosevelts with the demand for the intensification of our struggle for independence” (quoted in David N. Druhe, Soviet Russia and Indian Communism).

But the CPI leadership, after the years of its popular front treachery, were not going to oppose Stalin’s dictates. They soon embraced the Allied war effort. In the Guidelines of the History of the Communist Party of India, by the Central Party Education Department, the CPI noted the July position, adding: “Then a document proposing change of line was sent by the comrades in Deoli camp in December 1941. In February 1942 the PB said in a resolution: ‘Make the Indian people play a people’s role in the people’s war.’ In July 1942 the ban on the CPI was lifted and releases started. The main slogans were correct: ‘National government for national defence.’ ‘National unity for national government’.”

Let’s be clear. The emissaries from the Comintern responsible for dealing with the CPI—the Communist Party of Great Britain—broke the news to their Indian comrades that they were out of line. Harry Pollitt’s letter announcing this was even deliberately permitted by the British authorities to be passed to the Communists incarcerated in Deoli prison. Debate ensued and there were those who broke with the CPI rather than scab on the struggle against British imperialism for the sake of the “People’s War” but the CPI leaders accepted the new line. Their support to the war would now be “unqualified, wholehearted and full-throated.”

For its part Congress’ formal position was that its support to the war was conditional on being granted independence from Britain. What this boiled down to was “demanding” some concessions in exchange for producing cannon fodder for the imperialist war effort. Then, emboldened by Britain’s difficulties as Japan advanced through the Pacific and into Burma and cognisant that they might soon need to deal with another imperialist overlord, Congress went from conditional support to open opposition, seeking to force a settlement with British imperialism. Even arch-reactionary Churchill was compelled to recognise that concessions were needed to shore up the shaky Raj. Sir Stafford Cripps, a “left” Labourite reputed to be sympathetic to the Indian national cause was despatched to offer some meagre and insulting divide-and-rule concessions. Even Gandhi called them “a post dated cheque on a bank that was failing.” Then as Charles Wesley Ervin related in his “Trotskyism in India: Origins through World War Two (1935-1945)”: “On 8 August 1942 Congress called for mass civil disobedience to pressurise the British to ‘quit India.’ The British panicked. Within twelve hours every important Congress leader was in jail or on his way. News of the arrests brought thousands onto the streets of Bombay.... The August Struggle had begun” (Revolutionary History Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1988-89).

Arguing that Congress should form a temporary national government in collaboration with the Muslim League, the CPI bitterly opposed the “Quit India” resolution and in the ensuing struggles denounced Congress for its “sabotage.” Even in its mendacious retrospective, the CPI’s “Guidelines” admit: “It adopted an antistruggle antistrike line. A line of avoiding [!] mass struggles was worked out on the plea that they would damage the war effort or help profascist elements to sabotage it, eg. CC [Central Committee] plenum reports, articles in weekly People’s War. Quit India movement was opposed on the same basis [as] the Forward Bloc [Subhas Chandra Bose’s split] and socialists who attacked communists as ‘British agents’ were denounced in retaliation as fifth column and fascist agents.”

The newly formed BLPI plunged into the August events. Key cadre came from exiled Ceylonese Trotskyists who had escaped arrest and imprisonment in Ceylon, after the British crackdown on their party for its revolutionary defeatist stance on the imperialist war and their organising of militant struggles among the strategic Tamil plantation workers. As the heroic Trotskyists argued in their Bombay leaflet the very day the historic “August Action” began:

“The slogans of ‘Abolition of Landlordism without Compensation’ and ‘Cancellation of Peasant Debt’ must be leading slogans of the struggle. Not only no-tax campaigns against the government, but also no-rent campaigns against all landlords, must be commenced on the widest possible scale, leading to the seizure of land by the peasants through Peasants’ Committees.

“Manning the nerve centres of the economy, the workers are in the position to deal the most devastating blows against imperialism.... A mass general political strike against British imperialism will paralyse and bring to a stop the whole carefully built up machinery of imperialist administration.

“The Indian soldiers, who are peasants in uniform, cannot fail to be affected by the agrarian struggle against landlordism and imperialism.”

Many BLPI militants were imprisoned in the immediate aftermath. The British were not the only ones out to crush them, either; the CPI press “viciously slandered the Trotskyists as ‘criminals and gangsters who help the Fascists’ by allegedly calling for ‘strikes, sabotage, food riots and all forms of anarchy’ and ‘attempting to stir up trouble in all war industries’.... Stalinists from Ceylon were brought over to India to hunt for Samasamajists [Ceylonese Trotskyists], and CPI stool-pigeons fingered militants to the police during the war” (Ervin, ibid).

The BLPI’s draft programme made an eloquent exposition of Leninist tactics in the second imperialist war:

“With the mass slaughter, the unparalleled destruction and untold sufferings entailed by the war, the international proletariat and the oppressed masses of the colonies are being driven to the point where they will see in revolution the only way out. ‘The chief enemy of the people is in its own country.’ The prime task of proletarian revolutionaries in the present imperialist conflict is to follow the policy of revolutionary defeatism in relation to their ‘own’ government and to help develop the class struggle to the point of civil war regardless of the possibility of such a course leading to the defeat of one’s ‘own’ government....

“International developments are governed by two main contradictions. The first is the contradiction of the existence of a workers’ state (the Soviet Union) in a capitalist world. The second is the inter-imperialist rivalry which has now broken out openly into war.... But the supercession of the capitalist-workers’ state antagonism by the inter-imperialist antagonism and the temporary postponement of a united capitalist war of intervention against the Soviet Union by no means removed the danger of an attack on the Soviet Union by one of the parties in the inter-imperialist embroilment....

“But the parties of the Fourth International, while defending the Soviet Union from imperialist attack, do not for a single moment give up the struggle against the Stalinist apparatus. Incapable of carrying out the real defence of the Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucracy seeks the aid not of the international proletariat, but exclusively of Anglo-American Imperialism.... The workers’ state will be able to emerge victorious from the holocaust of war only under one condition, and that is, if it is assisted by the revolution in the West or in the East.”

Thus the BLPI stood out as a revolutionary pole during the Second World War. Despite its exemplary work, programmatic soundness and significant local successes, the small and overwhelmingly clandestine forces of the BLPI were insufficient to take advantage of the revolutionary crisis. The Congress leaders feared the unleashing of the workers and peasants against the capitalists and landlords many times more than they desired to enforce the demand to “Quit India” on the British imperialists; the Stalinists with their grovelling before Churchill had made themselves for a key period of time “the most universally detested political organisation in India.” The intervention of a revolutionary Trotskyist party with some real weight in the proletariat was at this juncture the decisive element in whether the question of India was solved along the October model or left after post-war “independence” to the bloody partition designed by the British imperialists.

During this period of subordination to Churchill and in line with the British divide-and-rule stratagems, the CPI flirted with the feudalist, British-backed Muslim League. It even decided there was a Muslim “nation” and adopted for some time the project of Pakistan. Later, they would shift back to fawning blandishments to Gandhi’s Congress. We will take up in greater detail these and other concrete examples of their perfidy and how Stalinist betrayal helped pave the way for the “solution” of the Churchills, Mountbattens and Cripps in the second and concluding part of this article.


In their efforts to crush the Indian independence struggle and radical social struggle, imperialist Britain, Churchill’s wartime coalition and Attlee’s Labour government alike, and the bourgeois-landlord lackeys in the Congress and Muslim League were fully aided and abetted by the treacherous Stalinist trinity of the Kremlin, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of India. The first part of this article concluded:

“During this period of subordination to Churchill and in line with the British divide-and-rule stratagems, the CPI flirted with the feudalist, British-backed Muslim League. It even decided there was a Muslim ‘nation’ and adopted for some time the project of Pakistan. Later, they would shift back to fawning blandishments to Gandhi’s Congress. We will take up in greater detail these and other concrete examples of their perfidy and how Stalinist betrayal helped pave the way for the ‘solution’ of the Churchills, Mountbattens and Cripps in the second and concluding part of this article.”

Before turning to the CPI’s own contribution to the horrors of the Partition, it is worth reviewing the line of the Communist Party of Great Britain on India during World War II, not least because the CPGB were the agency for enforcing the subordination of the struggle for independence to Churchill’s war in its “mentor” role to the Indian Communists.

Having enlisted enthusiastically in the “People’s War” the Communist Parties not only insisted on “sacrifices” (i.e., no strike pledges, cessation of social struggle) from the working classes within the “democratic” imperialist countries but also from the colonial slaves of those imperialisms. Thus, when resistance to British rule broke out in India, the British Stalinists (as well as the CPI) denounced the struggle as playing “into the hands of the Axis powers” (Black, Stalinism in Britain). CPGB leader Harry Pollitt wrote to Churchill with the following advice: “our [!] paramount aim must be to win the willing co-operation of the Indian nation in the common struggle against Fascism.” At its Congress in 1944 the CPGB emphatically rejected independence before the war ended, instructing the Indian masses that: “Establishment of a representative Indian National Government as an ally of the United Nations during the war, and freedom for the Indian people to choose their own form of Government after the war” was the order of the day. Black’s description of these Stalinists as the “Empire builders of the British ‘Communist’ Party” is apt.

The Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, revolutionary Trotskyists, described the situation in India during the war:

“British imperialism has instituted a system of repressive legislation, progressively inaugurating a gendarme regime not less systematic and ruthless than that of Russian czarism or German fascism. Since the commencement of the imperialist war, repression has been many times intensified. Even those nominal rights previously possessed by the masses have been openly withdrawn, and a naked rule of terror substituted through the Defense of India Act.... The press has been gagged by a series of iniquitous Press Acts and a systematic police censorship of all publications. Rights of free speech and assembly have been so curtailed that they are practically non-existent. Radical and revolutionary political parties are compelled to lead an underground existence.

“The right to strike no longer exists in all ‘essential war industries’.... Thousands of militant mass leaders have been imprisoned on flimsy pretexts or detained without trial. The restriction of individual movement by means of externment and internment orders has become a commonplace...” (quoted in Henry Judd, India in Revolt).

By contrast the ban on the CPI was lifted by a grateful British Raj in 1942 and a government circular of 20 September 1943 praised the CPI as “almost the only Party which fought for victory.” A CPI self-criticism produced years later is damning enough about what this meant:

“It adopted an antistruggle antistrike line. A line of avoiding mass struggles was worked out on the plea that they would damage the war effort or help profascist elements to sabotage it, eg. CC plenum reports, articles in weekly People’s War. Quit India movement was opposed, on the same basis the Forward Bloc and socialists who attacked communists as ‘British agents’ were denounced in retaliation as fifth column and fascist agents. In B.T. Ranadive’s report to the first congress on ‘Working Class and National Defence’ it was stated that production is ‘a sacred trust’ and ‘conditional support of production was a left-nationalist deviation’ therefore ‘strikes should be firmly prevented’.”

In addition to its self-confessed “anti-struggle” line during the war, the CPI as well played straight into the hands of British imperialism’s schemes to consciously promote communalist divisions.

CPI and Britain’s “Divide-and-Rule”

From the outset, all Indian nationalism was “a theme scored with religious, class, caste, and regional variations” (Wolpert, A New History of India), which given its social origins, was dominantly Hindu and upper-caste-based and frequently openly reactionary. A prime example was the early Congress “Extremist” leader B.G. Tilak, who first made his mark when he opposed the token reformist 1891 “Age of Consent” Bill (raising the age of statutory rape of child brides from ten to twelve) under the war cry “Religion in danger!” Gandhi alienated vast numbers of Muslims with his explicitly Hindu-myth and scripture-based rhetoric, describing his utopia as Ram Rajya (“the kingdom of Ram”—the Hindu epic hero-god). Such themes are the basis for subsequent fascistic Hindu chauvinism, such as the BJP/RSS [Bharatiya Janata Party/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] combine today. In the absence of a communist leadership consciously able to transcend and combat it by bringing the revolutionary proletarian, anti-communal, integrated class axis decisively to bear on the events leading up to 1947, this poison was bound to skewer any possibility of a progressive solution to India’s complex internal problems.

Far from communalism being an “eternal” feature of the Indian landscape, as the racist imperialist apologists would have it, it was the British who, through their systematic backing of one community against another to subjugate both, consciously nurtured this phenomenon as well as other caste, religious and national differences. Following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (significantly sparked by the refusal by Muslim and upper-caste Hindu sepoys [soldiers] alike to bite a new cartridge coated with animal fat), which far exceeded the bounds of the initial triggering episodes and revealed the depth of anti-British anger in the country, Governor General Elphinstone urged: “Our endeavor should be to uphold in full force the (for us) fortunate separation which exists between the different religions and races: not to endeavor to amalgamate them” (Henry Judd, India in Revolt). From this to the creation of separate Hindu and Muslim electorates in 1905-6 and thence to a series of other notorious “Communal Awards” culminating in the Partition: the imperialist logic of “divide-and-rule” was clear.

The novel Tamas no doubt truly portrays the efforts of CPI militants in the Punjab to fight the communalist slaughter during the Partition, but that blood-bath was prepared both by the CPI’s general support to the bourgeois nationalists and its particular wartime policies with respect to the Muslim question. One aspect of the Cripps’ Mission proposals in 1942 was a concession aimed at the Muslim League that areas could “opt out.” Given that Jinnah’s Muslim League had pledged “benevolent neutrality” in the imperialist war and the importance of recruitment from Muslim Punjabis, Pathans and Baluchis for the British Indian Army, this was a crucial divide-and-rule attempt to uphold the British war effort. The CPI, in its Central Party Education Department’s Guidelines of the History of the Communist Party of India (1974) admits the “serious mistake our party made on the question of Pakistan”:

“With the antistruggle line referred to above went the right-opportunist approach to the question of Congress-League (or national) unity, logically culminating in our support to Pakistan and the akali demand for sikh homeland. Failure to build up enough pressure on British imperialists and to build unity from below led to helpless reliance on unity from above. ‘Destiny of the nation depends on national unity—Congress-League unity’ which with Jinnah adamant on his demand for Pakistan led to trailing behind the Muslim League in order to bring Gandhi-Jinnah together.”

The CPI went from denouncing the Muslim League as reactionary and communalist (which it was) to generally giving it more favourable coverage than Congress. Muslim League General Secretary Liaquat Ali Khan for example praised the CPI for its “ceaseless efforts to convince the Hindu masses of the justice of the demand for the rights of self-determination to Muslims.” And CPI leader Joshi argued in August 1944 for strong and independent Muslim states in the north-west and north-east. Additionally in late 1944 the CPI argued for separate electorates for Untouchables, exactly in line with British imperialist “divide-and-rule” manoeuvres at that time.

The CPI’s flirtation with the Muslim League and Pakistan was not some healthy attempt to grapple with the complexities of the national question as some apologists have suggested, but a direct product of the alliance with Churchill and their efforts to cement that alliance. After all the Muslim League was also opposed to the “Quit India” struggles. And when the CPI “corrected” its flirtation with the feudalist Muslim League it was only to swing back to bourgeois Congress, policies that led directly to the CPI and CPI(M)’s [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] refusal today to defend legitimate national struggles such as those of the Kashmiris and the Sikhs.

In the service of tailing Congress, CPI leader P.C. Joshi reached new depths of Stalinist prostration before the leader of India’s Kuomintang. At the time of Gandhi’s release from prison in 1944, Joshi declared:

“Gandhiji, the beloved leader of the greatest patriotic organisation of our people, the mighty Indian National Congress is back in our midst again.... Every son and daughter of India, every patriotic organisation of our land, is looking to the greatest son of our nation to take it out of the bog in which none is safe.”

Amidst this record of sordid betrayal, acknowledged by the Stalinists’ own self-criticisms, about the only thing left for them to point to in that period is the relief work that the CPI organised during the Bengal famine. That famine in 1943 was a direct result of the imperialist war: wartime inflation, grain speculation and hoarding exacerbated by the loss of grain from Burma led to mass starvation. The arrogant indifference of the colonial administration was compounded by Churchill’s decision to cut back shipping to India. A.J.P. Taylor noted “A million and a half Indians died of starvation for the sake of a white man’s quarrel in North Africa” (English History 1914-1945).

The CPI’s famine relief work was not part of some revolutionary agitation against the war, but linked closely to its “war effort” on the food production “front.” Even if it did assist many in dire straits, the CPI’s famine relief work was a variant of Salvation Army mission work for Winston Churchill. In Bengal the CPI lost cadre because of its flirtation with the Muslim League, and it is noteworthy that in areas where the CPI dominated the peasant associations such as eastern Bengal and Telangana the peasant struggles over land and usury were restrained during the war compared to other areas.

The situation in Bengal impinges directly on the question of Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA). There are Stalinoid critics of Gandhi’s Congress (and thus presumably its CPI tails) who look to Bose’s INA as a revolutionary alternative. At one time a left critic within Congress and elected as its head over the objections of Gandhi et al., Bose split to form the Forward Bloc Party in Bengal. Forward Bloc was banned and Bose arrested in 1940; he escaped on the eve of his trial in 1941 and travelled across northern India to Afghanistan, from there to Moscow. During the pre-June Russo-German alliance, Bose was welcomed by Hitler and “given high-powered radio facilities to beam daily broadcasts to India...urging his countrymen to rise in revolt against British tyranny” (Wolpert). In the spring of 1943, Bose travelled to Southeast Asia whereupon Tojo turned over all his Indian POWs to Bose’s command. In January 1944 he started his Indian National Army on their march north crossing the borders of India and reached the outskirts of Tripura’s state capital, Imphal, by May. Defeated by the British garrison, the INA surrendered in Rangoon and Bose escaped on the last Japanese plane to leave Saigon. He died in Formosa after a crash landing. When the captured officers of Bose’s INA went on trial in the winter of 1945-6 they were widely heralded as nationalist martyrs. On 18 February 1946 the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in Bombay harbour; the mutiny spread to Karachi. The British stepped up their attempts to extricate themselves from India.

Undoubtedly the INA was popular, particularly in Bengal, and among its ranks were those seeking a way to fight British imperialism rather than “turning the other cheek” à la Gandhi. However the paeans offered to Bose in, for example, a feature article in the 4 August Asian Times as achieving “a signal victory” and providing “the last nail in the coffin of British rule in India” miss the point that larger world events had intervened and in fact Bose had subordinated himself to the Axis powers who were Britain’s imperialist rivals during the war. Where the CPI bowed before Churchill, the INA functioned at the behest of and under the protection of the Japanese imperialists. As the Japanese forces scored victories in rapid succession at Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma the possibility of a Japanese invasion and victory in India was strongly felt. Bose had thrown his lot in with another would-be colonial conqueror. The INA fought in Burma—just as Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang fought on the other side with American imperialism. Both the Kuomintang and the INA subordinated the national struggle to their respective imperialist overlords. In China and in Southeast Asia the colonial masses very quickly learnt that the Japanese masters were no better than their deeply hated English, American, Dutch and French masters. The tragedy in India, and especially Bengal, was that the masses were given no choice but subordination to one or another imperialist.

These betrayals in India expose those such as the Stalinists of the Lalkar publication of the Indian Workers Association who absurdly insist that “revisionism” began with Khrushchev’s reign. For them, “So long as Comrade Stalin was in the leadership of the CPSU and was organising the tireless vigilance that needed to be exercised” “trounc[ing]” “the reactionary Trotskyite and Bukharinite opposition” all was well! (In fact, the CPI(M) still celebrates Stalin’s birthday in Calcutta.) And the Stalinists today prefer not to talk too much about their record in India during the Second World War, not only because it is such an affront to the revolutionary aspirations of the masses but also because they continue to pursue a class-collaborationist alliance with the Indian bourgeoisie.

Instead they seek to hide behind the figure of Stalin as a great war leader who defeated fascist barbarism. Somehow the Stalinist sins in India are to be exonerated on the basis that Stalin saved mankind. To this end, Lalkar’s Harpal Brar turgidly regurgitates all the old Stalinist lies about Tukhachevsky being an agent of Hitler to justify his murder and the purge of the Red Army officer corps in his book Perestroika: The Complete Collapse of Revisionism. In the course of these bloody purges—between 1937 and 1939 (i.e., beginning during the popular front period)—the Red Army lost three of its five Marshals, all eleven of its Deputy Commissars for Defence, 75 of 80 of its members of the Military soviet, all its military district commanders who held that post in June 1937. The naval and air chiefs of staff were killed. Thirteen out of 15 army commanders were shot, 57 out of 85 corps commanders were shot, as were 110 out of the 195 divisional commanders. In the Far Eastern forces, over 80 per cent of the staff were purged. Tukhachevsky had predicted an attack like Operation Barbarossa and he and his comrades had a lively sense of technological innovation. These experienced and talented veterans of the Civil War were replaced by incompetent cronies of Stalin, who abolished the Red Army’s tank units—one of these replacements thought automatic weapons were just for policemen.

Right up to the day of the invasion Stalin was shipping vital raw materials to Germany. Warnings and precise intelligence from [Leopold] Trepper’s Red Orchestra and Richard Sorge in Japan were labelled as “English provocations” and not passed on to the general staff. Stalin forbade the dispersal of the air force (and it was consequently massacred on the ground) and ruled out any effective planning of defence in depth. Even after the invasion had begun, Stalin countermanded orders for the artillery to return fire, and forbade air-raid precautions in cities under attack. The criminal conduct of Stalin and his gang directly led to the loss of two and a half million soldiers in 1941, huge areas of territory (including important industrial plants which Stalin had refused to locate east of the Volga until that summer) and an almost fatal blow being delivered to the workers state.

The Soviet Union survived because despite Stalin the Red Army fought tooth and nail to stop the onslaught. In December 1941 Zhukov’s effective counterattack was wrecked by Stalin’s personal meddling and as late as the summer of 1942 the simple incompetence of Stalin and one of his toadies led to the loss of 200,000 men in the Crimea. It was only with the emergence of a competent layer of generals not liable to listen so much to Stalin that the heroism of the Red Army and Soviet peoples was turned into the liberation of the Soviet homeland and Eastern Europe from the Nazi scourge. Not only did Stalin’s general policies of “socialism in one country” lead to near fatal catastrophe but his particular military contribution was disastrous.

For a Revolutionary Proletarian Solution!

At independence the subcontinent faced the unspeakable horrors of Partition and today it remains one of the most impoverished, oppressed and exploited areas in the world, a veritable prison-house for national minorities, women and lower castes. The communalist slaughters engulfing Partition killed between one and two million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus (mainly in Punjab and Bengal) and the forced migrations in its aftermath displaced over eleven million. A New York Times correspondent, Robert Trumbull, reported of the Partition: “In India today blood flows oftener than rain falls. I have seen dead by the hundreds and, worst of all, thousands of Indians without eyes, feet or hands. Death by shooting is merciful and uncommon” (quoted in Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight). Muslim babies were discovered “roasted like piglets on spits” and the 45-mile road from Lahore to Amritsar became such an “open graveyard” that, according to one British officer, “The vultures had become so bloated by their feasts they could no longer fly.” A stationmaster at Amritsar recounted what had initially seemed to be a “phantom train,” one of many rolling into Punjabi stations at the time: “The floor of the compartment before him was a mass of human bodies, throats cut, skulls smashed, bodies eviscerated. Arms, legs, trunks of bodies were strewn along the corridors of compartments.... He turned to look back at the train. As he did, he saw in great white-washed letters on the flank of the last car the [Pakistani] Moslem assassins’ calling card. ‘This train is our Independence gift to [Indian Congress nationalists] Nehru and Patel’” (ibid).

The lessons of the struggle for Indian independence and the social liberation of India’s toiling masses are crucial not only for revolutionaries on the subcontinent but in all those countries where the permanent revolution applies, from South Africa to Iran. A Leninist-Trotskyist party must be built in irreconcilable struggle against every kind of nationalism and popular frontism, counterposing a revolutionary programme for the emancipation and reconstruction of the oppressed nation under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Writing in 1915 of the tasks for Russian revolutionaries Leon Trotsky called for “a revolutionary workers’ government, the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat”:

“But revolution is first and foremost a question of power—not of the state form (constituent assembly, republic, united states) but of the social content of the government. The demands for a constituent assembly and the confiscation of land under present conditions lose all direct revolutionary significance without the readiness of the proletariat to fight for the conquest of power....” (“The Struggle for Power”)

Because the Bolsheviks were committed to such a programme, the Russian Revolution of 1917 produced the first workers state on the planet. The USSR stood then as a beacon for the colonial and semi-colonial masses struggling for their liberation, as well as for the exploited working masses in the imperialist countries. Lenin and Trotsky’s Third International, later to be destroyed by Stalin, sought to bring the lessons of October to the workers of every land.

Today we in the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) fight to forge a revolutionary international which Lenin and Trotsky would recognise as their own. It will be an especially gratifying victory when the workers of the entire Indian subcontinent lead all the oppressed in throwing off the chains of neocolonial enslavement through victorious socialist revolution.


Workers Vanguard No. 970

WV 970

3 December 2010


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Issues No. 949 (1 January) through No. 970 (3 December)


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The 1940s “Quit India” Movement

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