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The great communist split

When the pro-Soviet ‘revisionists’ and and pro-China ‘true revolutionaries’ parted ways

Written by Inder Malhotra |
September 20, 2010 4:45:42 am

At the time of Independence,the Congress was an amorphous umbrella party consisting of diverse elements covering almost the entire political spectrum while the Communist Party of India was seen as a compact and cohesive party of like-minded ideologues. Yet the CPI bitterly broke into two — the new unit calling itself the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — in 1964,a good five years before the same fate overtook the Grand Old Party in totally different circumstances. Countless books have been published on the historic Congress Split of 1969,the starting point of Indira Gandhi’s supremacy. That of the comrades’ parting of ways,though fascinating,is relatively unknown and therefore worth telling.

In a way,a split in the CPI was inherent almost from the very beginning. The surprise is that it took so long for it to happen. It is also remarkable that the communists had taken a U-turn in their attitude to the nationalist sentiment during World War II. When it began in 1939,it was for them an “imperialist war”. On June 21,1941,it suddenly morphed into a “people’s war” because Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. For three years before that Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were allies! The CPI opposed the Mahatma’s Quit India movement in 1942 vehemently.

Yet,around the advent of Independence,the CPI’s influence,as distinct from following,in the country was progressive,especially among students,artists,writers,and so on. This was due largely to the good sense of the party’s first general secretary,P.C. Joshi. He tried to stay close to the national sentiment as far as possible and offered support to Nehru.

This infuriated the more “revolutionary” leaders who,together with Moscow and Beijing,were convinced that Indian independence was “bogus”,that the Nehru government represented the “comprador” capitalists and landlords and that it had to be overthrown by “urban armed struggle”. The main protagonist of this line,B.T. Ranadive,replaced PCJ who was not only overthrown but also expelled from the party. However,BTR,too,did not last long. In 1950,C. Rajeswar Rao from Andhra,then one of the four CPI strongholds,took over as general secretary. For the Andhra unit was leading the revolt by the Telengana peasants,and was arguing that in a primarily rural country “urban armed struggle” made no sense. As the Chinese revolution had proved,the countryside must revolt,and therefore India must follow the “Chinese path”,said Andhra CPI leaders — Rao,Basava Punniah and P. Sundarayya. Totally opposed to them were Ajoy Ghosh,S. A. Dange and S.V. Ghate. The CPI,they argued,must follow the “Indian path”,not any foreign model. The fight between the two sides became so acute that both agreed to seek the Soviet Union’s advice.

Rao,Punniah,Ghosh and Dange travelled incognito,as stowaways on board a Soviet merchant ship,to Moscow where Stalin personally told them to call off the Telangana revolt even while keeping the armed option “open” for the future. To a question whether the current revolt could not be fostered,he replied: “Do you have the necessary mass support?” This was the voice of the realist who,during World War II,had asked Churchill and Roosevelt: “How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin added that India was not really free and was being “ruled indirectly by the colonial power but the Nehru government was not a puppet.”

The final word having been spoken by the highest Oracle,the CPI immediately accepted the Ajoy Ghosh-Dange thesis. Ghosh was elected general secretary,served for 10 years until his death in 1961 and,to his credit,kept the increasingly fractious party in one piece somehow. Significantly,however,even while accepting peaceful struggle and rejecting hostility towards the Nehru government,the new line wasn’t as friendly to the prime minister as P.C. Joshi would have liked it to be.

From the Korean War onwards,through his visits to China and the USSR,Nehru’s foreign policy became very popular with both the communist powers. Even domestically his policies were tilting towards a “socialistic pattern of society.” The CPI’s shattering defeat in the assembly elections in Andhra shook it. It therefore fashioned the strategy of “unity and struggle” with the Nehru-led Congress government. But even this became an apple of discord. The hardline half of the party demanded precedence for “struggle” over “unity”. And so it went on,until the deteriorating relations with China culminated in the border war in 1962 and the Sino-Soviet split profoundly affected the course of events.

At the start of the 1962 War,Dange — appointed chairman of the CPI,with E.M.S. Namboodiripad as general secretary — condemned the Chinese “aggression” and offered support to the Nehru government. The dissident leaders,then in hiding to escape people’s wrath but determined to support China,lambasted Dange. The “inner party struggle”,nicknamed IPS,intensified. Meanwhile,Harekrishna Konar of West Bengal had met the Chinese leaders first in Vietnam and then in Beijing,where Mao also received him. The Chinese message was loud and clear: reject the pro-Moscow “revisionists” and become “true revolutionaries”.

By early 1963,Namboodiripad resigned as general secretary in a last-ditch attempt to preserve the party’s unity. He had the support of other centrist leaders such as Bhupesh Gupta and even Jyoti Basu,but to no avail. April 10,1964 was fixed for a meeting of the National Council in the hope of minimising the differences between the rival sides. But it was never held. For the two fiercely fighting factions that had been busy building up rival centres of power,even while supposed to be within the same party,said goodbye to each other. The CPI and the CPM came into being.

A lot has happened since then to change the scene but the fairly logical perception at that time was the CPI was bending over backwards to be loyal to Moscow and the CPM was supportive of China. My friend and colleague, the late Satindra Singh,an ardent communist turned inveterate anti-communist,in his writings used to describe the Marxists as “Pekinese” and the CPI leaders as “Russian dolls.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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