The movement for India’s independence was a protracted struggle that encapsulated varying ideologies and walks working towards attaining total deliverance from British rule. It was neither led by a single leader nor did it overhaul a single ideological hegemony. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was one such organisation that left an obtrusive footprint upon the history of the mass independence movement, for reasons good and bad.
In this article, we shall revisit the nefarious role played by the Communist Party in the Pakistan movement which culminated in the horrific Direct Action Day of 1946, also known as ‘The Bengali Hindu Holocaust’.
Based on historical and anecdotal evidence one can decipher that the CPI for most of the time between 1942 and 1947, advanced a collaborationist attitude towards the British Raj and the Muslim League alike.
The CPI was opposed to India’s independence movement from day one. In the first World Congress of the Communist International held in Moscow in 1920, the Programme of the International called Gandhiism a philosophy that was fast emerging as a stumbling block in the way of a people’s revolution.
A motion in the sixth International held in 1928, also in Moscow, pointed out that it was the duty of all communists in India to expose the Congress in India, and to resist the efforts of Swarajists, Gandhians and Congressmen of all hues.
The clamour for Pakistan: Decoding the Gangadhar Adhikari Thesis
The communists implied independence as the deliverance of the working classes from bourgeois exploitation which could be attained by overthrowing of the capitalist order through a socialist revolution and substituting it with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
The Congress and the communists were always at ideological loggerheads with each other. The communists perceived the Gandhian movement as a bourgeois struggle and transfer of power as replacement of colonialism with that of neo-colonialism, where imperialist interests would be served better.
When the clamour for Pakistan by the Muslim League, on the basis of Jinnah’s two-nation theory was warming up, and Congress leaders were in jail following the uprising of August 1942, the CPI released a ‘thesis’, drafted by Gangadhar Adhikari.
The substance of the thesis was that there was no such nation as India, that India was really a conglomeration of as many as eighteen different ‘nationalities’ and that each one of these nationalities had the right to secede from the conglomeration. The communist understanding was that Muslims would be oppressed by the Hindus in united India and that the League had become ‘progressive’.
Supporting Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, the communists argued that secession, far from dismembering the country, would “lead to still greater and more glorious unity of India, the like of which India has not seen in her history.”
The Communist participation in the Direct Action Day
The Pakistan Resolution was passed in the Lahore Convention of the Muslim League in 1940. At this point, it is necessary to take a look at the role played by the Communist Party of India at this juncture and later. This is because, as will be seen, the Indian Communists, in order to secure political gains, wholeheartedly supported the demand for Pakistan voiced by the Muslim League.
When every street and corner of Bengal echoed with the cries of ‘Ladke Lenge Pakistan’, the Communist Party extended its full support to the Pakistan Movement and even betrayed Hindus during the ghastly Direct Action Day. They were adamant on maintaining that the demand for Pakistan was a precondition for the transfer of power. The maiden meeting of the Muslim League that was held in the Ochterlony Monument Ground in Calcutta on the Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946 resounded with inflammatory anti-Hindu sloganeering and speeches.
The meeting was attended by Jyoti Basu, Leader of the CPI in Bengal Legislative Assembly and two other communist MLAs. The communists adopted a uniquely dialectical position with regard to the Direct Action Day. The Muslim League gave a call for a bandh on that day in Calcutta and the League Chief Minister of Bengal, H S Suhrawardy declared a holiday in the State with the obvious intent of facilitating the bandh and all that comes with it.
But the communists displayed a reverse sagacity that was hard to match, as the leader of the CPI in the Bengal Assembly, Jyoti Basu, in a press release declared — displaying the quintessential dialectical vision that eventually succeeded in duping many for decades — that “the CPI would try to keep the state peaceful on that day, with a strike where necessary and without a strike where necessary”. He appealed not to precipitate any clash between the ‘brothers’ (Hindu and Muslim workers) and ‘make a common stand against the common foe’ (Britishers and their ‘bourgeois collaborators’).
According to eye witness accounts, as the zealous Muslim fundamentalists resorted to arson, loot and all sorts of mayhem in the name of Muslim separatism, Jyoti Basu fled the meeting as the situation had by then gone out of control. The protagonists of Pakistan pounced upon the Hindu citizens as they were presumed to be the votaries of undivided India.
The riot continued in full swing for five days – from the 16th to the 20th August 1946. According to The Statesman, over 4000 people were killed and over 15000 injured during the riots, and over 270 killed and 1600 injured in two days since the riots started.
As the Hindus of Calcutta started organising themselves and put up a gallant resistance to the Muslim rioters, Premier Suhrawardy was forced to call in the military on 17 August. The communist leaders were left aghast at the Hindu retaliation, and momentarily switched sides. To be on the safer side, few communist leaders including Jyoti Basu contributed to the ‘peace committees that took the work of restoring communal harmony.
This was an ‘eyewash’ for many while for some this was sheer ‘damage control’. There was a feeling among the upper rungs of the CPI that further passivity would push the communists to the margins of political untouchability and alienation. It would have taken no longer to turn the repulsive Hindu tide against the vulnerable communists. Though the damage had already been done yet better late than never!
Communist trade unions’support to Muslim League
The non-League Trade Union that did join the Muslim League’s call for Direct Action Day was the CPI-controlled Tramway Workers’Union. The workers of this union had a four-hour-long session at the University Institute Hall with its Muslim comrade, Mohammed Ismail presiding.
During the 1946 election campaign in Raipur, Central Provinces, the same Mohammed Ismail had drawn the mass attention to the Pakistan demand of the League and explained the stance of his party vis-a-vis the League demand. For Ismail, Pakistan demand was a ‘natural outcome of the freedom urge of the Muslims’.
Under him, the CPI decided to observe 16August as a strike to maintain Hindu-Muslim workers’solidarity. The communist trade union observed complete bandh in several petroleum, steel, iron and jute factories of Bengal.
Communist leadership had advocated for Pakistan and handing over the entire Bengal to Pakistan, however, the grassroots workers were realising the folly of this stand. The industrialised localities of Calcutta had a strong presence of communist trade unions.
Dr Kalyan Dutta, a communist ideologue and professor, noted in his autobiography that in the Khidirpur the Hindu communist workers were attacked by their Muslim party-comrades on the fateful day of 17 August 1946. The communist textile union leader Syed Abdullah Farooqui along with Muslim hardliner Elian Mistry led an armed Muslim band into the Kesoram Cotton Mills in the slums of Lichubagan, near Khidirpur in Calcutta.
The Hindu workers were utterly perplexed. They did show their party membership card to their Muslim comrades and begged for their own lives. Their lives, however, were not spared. According to conservative estimates, not less than 400 (500-600 according to other reports) Hindu labourers, mostly Oriyas, were killed. This is the largest reported anti-Hindu massacre in the whole series of Great Calcutta Killings.
It goes without saying that the Hindu members of communist trade unions had to face the brunt of Muslim fundamentalist fury that was offered a free hand by their party barons. The Khidirpur incident was a sordid chapter enunciating the totalizing effect of the Direct Action Day. The communist determinism of ‘class struggle’ could not restrain their Muslim members from taking up the cause of Pakistan- a call for ‘religious struggle’.
CPI’s support to the League Ministry in the No-Confidence Motion
In 1946, the composition of the Bengal Legislative Assembly was as follows: Muslim League: 116; Congress: 62; Hindu Mahasabha: 1; Depressed Castes: 30 (including 24 Congress members) and; Communist Party: 3.
The three communist MLAs were- Jyoti Basu from Syedpur; Rupnarayan Roy from Dinajpur and Ratanlal Brahman from Darjeeling. The communist legislators defied the united Hindu call for Suhrawardy’s resignation in the Bengal Legislative Assembly and voted in an unprincipled manner that facilitated the League.
On 19 September 1946, the Congress moved two no-confidence motions against the Muslim League in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. One was against the ministry in general and another against Premier Suhrawardy in particular.
Participating in this debate Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha Leader, gave the longest speech in the House on 20 September 1946 wherein he strongly attacked both the Government and the Premier. However, the role played by the Communist Party during the two-day long debate in the Assembly exposed the nefarious nexus between the communists and Leaguers.
Jyoti Basu, the CPI Leader who later became the Chief Minister of West Bengal, said before the House that the British Imperialists, who were looking after Indian administration, were the main criminals for the communal riots and pointed out the fact that while the Sindh Governor disallowed the declaration of holiday on 16 August, the Bengal Governor did the contrary in Calcutta.
Basu and his party unquestionably played the role of a League collaborationist and a genocide apologist within the Assembly. In the guise of attacking the British Governor of Bengal for inciting Leaguers to riot freely, he preserved silence on the flagitious role played by Suhrawardy in orchestrating the anti-Hindu pogrom in the heart of the provincial capital. CPI legislator Rupnarayan Roy went to the extent of proposing a resolution to condemn the stridently anti-League stand Syama Prasad Mukherjee took in the floor of the House.
Both the motions were put to vote on 20 September 1946. The motion against the Premier was defeated by 130 to 85 votes, while the motion against the government was also defeated by 131 to 87.
86 Congress members and 1 Hindu Mahasabha member voted in bloc against the Suhrawardy government. All the 3 communist members (Basu, Roy and Brahman) remained ‘neutral’; voting neither for nor against the Muslim League.
In spite of their failure in the face of the brute majority of the Muslims in the Bengal Legislative Assembly gifted by the Communal Award of 1932, the most striking thing about the no-confidence motion was how the opposition, irrespective of their political affiliations, spoke in one voice. Whether the Congress or Mahasabha, they all criticised the ministry in one voice for their failure to adequately police pickets and delay in calling the military.
However, when the whole spectrum of Hindu opinion was consolidated against the League, the communist legislators played a dismal role by adopting ‘neutrality’. What was to be deciphered was that neutrality at all costs in such an abysmal situation implied silence and, silence inferred acquiescence to the ruthlessness of the League Ministry.
Needless to say, the communist members in the Assembly were not ignorant to the atrocious designs of the League government as its direct role in the masterminding of the communal pogrom was ascertained and revealed. Yet the communist neutrality during the voting and its despicable inaction to take a stand against the Muslim League in itself proved its commitment to the pro-Pakistan effort.
Contrary to the Hindu opinion which was united against the League, the Communists backstabbed not only their electors who were largely Hindu but also quite notoriously jeopardized the unity and integrity of undivided India. The Communist Party posited the farcical excuse of ‘working-class unity’ to defend its position. In the veneer of class struggle, the communists did not dither to push the Hindu masses into the jaws of the League and henceforth jeopardise the national integrity of India.
Justifying their ‘neutral’ stand, the Communist Party’s General Secretary Puran Chand Joshi wrote to his fellow Bengali comrades on 27 August 1947, “We can vote against the Muslim League Ministry provided it does not affect our working-class base and we can carry it with ourselves through our extensive explanatory campaign… If we cannot keep up even our hold on existing organised working class, everything is lost, even for the future. Thus the best way possible to keep all in good humour was to stay neutral. Voting against the Muslim League will have other serious implications”.
Support to League’s observance of Rashid Ali Day
With the fall of Japan and subsequent Indian National Army’s surrender before the Allied Forces, the British government put Netaji’s men to trial. While three of the INA heroes: G.S. Dhillon, Prem Sehgal and Shah Nawaz (a patriotic Muslim who was taunted as ‘Pandit’ by Muslim League) were let off completely while another compatriot, Captain Abdul Rashid was sentenced to seven years.
This created a tremendous stir among the Muslims. This was the same Rashid who stated that the reason for his joining the INA was to arm himself sufficiently so as to safeguard Muslim interests in the event of a future INA invasion in India. He despised the ‘non-Muslim soldiers’ who were the moving spirits of the INA.
The Communist Party and its students’ wing immediately joined the Muslim cause and extended support to the Muslim League’s strike on 9 February 1946, observing it as ‘Captain Rashid Ali Day’. The communists hailed that day as ‘an anti-Imperialist expression of Muslim masses’. Jyoti Basu defended the communist position by arguing that they were with the anti-imperialist Muslim masses in general, rather than with the Muslim League in particular.
Assessing the CPI’s contribution in Pakistan Movement and their betrayal of Hindus during Direct Action Day
The communists rubbing shoulders with the Muslim fundamentalists can be aptly compared with Gandhi’s support to the Khilafat Movement. Justifying the anti-British stance of the Khilafat agitators, Gandhi did not hesitate to strike a Hindu-Muslim alliance. It was a Himalayan Blunder on Gandhi’s part as the Hindus had nothing to gain from this mischievous alliance.
The deadly anti-Hindu genocide in Malabar exhibits the subtlety of the alliance. Gandhi had justified the massacre and blamed Hindus for the rise of Muslim fanaticism! Direct Action Day was nothing but the highest culmination of fanatical expression of the Muslim masses arising out of the Pakistan movement.
The Hindus were the worst sufferers of the Pakistan movement. Henceforth, the Communist Party’s justification of a common Hindu-Muslim alliance was wholly inefficacious and only pushed the Hindus into the horrid dregs of Islamist frenzy.
The lame excuses of the communists for endorsing the Pakistan movement swarmed between ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘workers’ unity’. They believed that Pakistan was a rightful demand of the Muslim working classes. Clinging on to the principle of ‘international unity of working classes’, they argued that the Hindu working classes should concur to the political bargaining of the Muslim working classes, even at the cost of their own existence.
The communists ardently believed that the Hindu and Muslim working classes were working for a common objective i.e., a socialist revolution. They further argued that the nature of the bourgeoisie was the same everywhere and that the Muslims would be worse off in a united India as they would be compressed between neoimperialist interests on one hand and Hindu repression on the other.
Even after independence, communist ideologues like Jyoti Basu and Manikuntala Sen left no stone unturned to whitewash Muslim League’s crimes. The CPI’s espousal of Pakistan did not stop here. CPI leaders, such as Sajjad Zaheer, B.T. Ranadive, P.C. Joshi and others, actively wrote and otherwise propagandized in favour of the ‘right of secession of the Muslims of India’.
This was all before the partition actually took place. Probably the Communists expected that in the fledgling state of Pakistan they would be much better off as a party than they were in undivided India. Alas, this was not to be.
The atheist Communists with Hindu names were treated no differently from their God-fearing Hindu brethren, and with the exception of very few like Moni Singh, they had all to leave their beloved Pakistan for which they had done so much clamouring.
Acclaimed Bengali communists like Ganesh Ghosh and Kalpana Dutta- the two revolutionaries of the Chittagong Armoury Raid, and Ramen Mitra and Ilaa Mitra (organisers of the Nachole Tebhaga Uprising) had to flee Pakistan after independence. History bears testimony to the fact that the fallacious Hindu-Muslim worker’s unity was driven by a ploy to relegate Hindus into pawns at hands of Islamic fundamentalism.
- Roy, Tathagata; Chapter 2 THE COUNTDOWN: POLITICS OF BENGAL BETWEEN THE TWO PARTITIONS, 1905-1947; My People Uprooted: The Exodus of Hindus from East Pakistan and Bangladesh; Published: 1 January 2015
- Chatterjee, Chhanda; Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Dissent and the Partition of Bengal, 1932-1947; Publisher: Routledge; Published: 14 June 2020
- Fazlul Huq and Bengal Politics in the years before the Second Partition of Bengal (1947); https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/227519/18/18_chapter%206.pdf
- Sanyal, Sunanda and Basu, Soumya; The Sickle and the Crescent: Communists, Muslim League and India’s Partition; Published: 1 December 2011
- Ghosh, Amitabha; An eye-witness account of the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of august 1946; https://www.opindia.com/2018/08/eye-witness-account-of-direct-action-day-great-calcutta-killing-of-16-august-1946/; Published: 22 August 2018
- Gangopadhyay, Kausik; The Partition of Bengal: Supported by all sections of Bengali Hindus to protect their own lives and identity; https://www.opindia.com/2019/06/the-partition-of-bengal-supported-by-all-sections-of-bengali-hindus-to-protect-their-own-lives-and-identity/; Published: 20 June 2019
- Chaudhari, K.K.; The Quit India Revolution: The Ethos of Its Central Direction; Publisher: Popular Prakashan; Published: 1996
- Mahapatra, Sandeep; OPINION | Pride of Being Bharatiya Has Been Ridiculed by the Communists; https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/pride-of-being-bharatiya-has-been-ridiculed-by-the-communists-1799575.html; Published: 3 July 2018