The killing of 10 Indian CRPF personnel by Chinese forces on October 21, 1959 is known to have been the start of hostilities that finally culminated in the Sino-India war of 1962. The events that took place at the high mountain ranges of Eastern Ladakh, at a cold dry spot known as Kongka Pass, came as a huge setback to the Indian government. It was also the moment that caused the beginning of the fractures within the second most popular political party in the country at the time, the Communist Party of India (CPI). The war between India and China in 1962 was to have its strongest impact on Left politics in India, as it caused the split of the CPI.
Of course, one cannot disregard that all was not well in the party that came to become the face of Left ideologies in India, right from the time of the Independence of the country. Differing ideologies over the nature of Indian independence, and then over the fundamental character of Indian state and society, had caused multiple factions to arise within the party. However, it was the war of 1962, that was to play a crucial role in determining the final split.
The impact of the Sino-India war on CPI becomes understandable in context of the pressures that Communist ideology was facing worldwide in an era when colonial forces were being diminished.
The CPI was founded on October 17, 1920, in the city of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, which was formerly a part of the Soviet Union. The CPI is known to have been the first attempt made by the Communist International to create a Communist party in India from among Indian revolutionaries who had migrated to America and Europe. Given the international origins of the CPI, the party had an ambiguous stance, even when it came to the nationalist movement. A case in point here is the 1940s, when faced with Gandhi’s call for Quit India movement on one hand, and the Soviet Union’s appeal to back the British in the Second World War on the other, the CPI alienated itself from the freedom struggle.
In the period between the late 1950s and early 60s, an event that would have the most far-reaching consequence on Communist ideologies across the world is the breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations. The two Communist powers were at loggerheads over their interpretation of the Marxist-Leninist ideals. China decried the Soviet Union’s policy of international peaceful co-existence with the West.
At the same time, Soviet Union had found an ally in India. The USSR appealed to the CPI to lend its support to Nehru’s foreign policy, much against the wishes of certain sections of the party who had their animosities towards the Congress. Consequently, those who did not agree with the Soviet Union’s call for support towards Nehru, found themselves looking for guidance from the Communist Party in China.
It was in this atmosphere crisis within international communism, that the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959. When the Chinese brutally suppressed the Tibetan uprising, the CPI acted as a unit. “A Communist Party statement of March 31 praised the Chinese for leading the Tibetans from ‘medieval darkness’ and blamed the rebellion on Tibetan ‘serf owners’ backed by Indian reactionaries and Western imperialists,” wrote researcher Robert W. Stern, in his article published in 1965 titled, ‘The Sino-Indian border controversy and the Communist Party of India’.
Even when Nehru revealed that Chinese forces were in the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA) and Ladakh, the CPI remained largely silent and tried to minimise the importance of the affair. The situation began to change from September, when the Indian government revealed a note from China disputing the 800-mile long McMohan line as the Sino-Indian frontier. When the Central Executive Committee of the party met at Calcutta in September to discuss Sino-Indian relations, a group of leading communists from Bombay and Kerala openly dissented with the party, demanding it to declare support for Nehru’s border policy.
The Calcutta resolution though, was a defeat for the dissidents. “It equated the authenticity of the McMohan line with the authenticity of the Chinese territorial claims based on maps which had been roundly condemned in the Indian press and in Parliament,” wrote Stern. Nonetheless, party general-secretary Ajoy Ghosh managed to mediate between the two factions and retain a semblance of unity in the party. However, it was short lived.
A month later, faced with public backlash against the Calcutta resolution, and also the incident at Kongka Pass, a faction of nationalists from the CPI made public their disaffection with the party’s stance. Participating at a parliamentary board meeting of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (a multi-party organisation formed to demand a separate state for Marathi speaking people), the Communists in Maharashtra declared: “The McMahon line was India’s ‘natural boundary’ and China’s refusal to vacate Indian territory was ‘tantamount to forcible occupation’.”
Following the incident at Kongka Pass, S A Dange, one of the founding members of the CPI from Maharashtra, and representative of the party in Lok Sabha, condemned the Chinese unequivocally. “The whole country will stand behind Pandit Nehru in whatever steps he takes to avert such incidents,” he said. He was supported by A K Gopalan from Kerala, Hirendranath Mukherjee who was CPI deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha, and Jharkande Rai who represented the party in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly. Voices of dissent soon started to emerge from Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Delhi Haridwar and many other places.
At the same time, a strong pro-Chinese wing remained within the party. It was strongest in Calcutta and Punjab, but was also present elsewhere. This group was largely satisfied with the Calcutta resolution and refused to lend more support to Nehru’s border policy. They were called the party leftists, while their opponents were called the rightists.
In the ensuing months, while efforts were made to reach a middle ground, the disagreements within the party had become almost irreconcilable. Matters came to a head in 1961 when Ghosh passed away.
When Chinese forces invaded India in October 1962, Dange aided the Indian government in the arrest of thousands of those party members who aligned towards China.
The last straw though, that ultimately led to the splitting of the party, was the issue over a few letters written by Dange which were found by party leftist Dwijen Nandi, showed the former offering his service to the British intelligence. It culminated in the meeting of July 1964, when about 100 party leftists formally announced the creation of a new Communist party. While initially both parties insisted on being called CPI, due to necessities of election procedures, the leftist group registered themselves as Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M).