If there is a BJP-led NDA victory in the summer of 2019, India’s parliamentary Left will once more debate its strategies. It will represent a third successive electoral disaster for the CPI/M, since the highs of 2004. The debate will probably be more rueful than painful and will need to be more searching than sectarian, for it is often said that “India’s overall makeup since independence appeared to have all the makings of a country ready to turn communist”—a brutal social hierarchy in its caste system, ailing agriculture, exploding population, slow industrial growth, heavy allocation to defence, incredible poverty and economic inequality. Consequently, it is asked, “why did not communism find a foothold, attract a following, and ultimately reign supreme?” 

The list of reasons makes for an interesting read: tradition of ahimsa and Satyagraha from Hindu-Jain-Buddhist ethics, western-imperial legacies of language, education, government and constitution, rigid caste system and an “inherently religious nature of daily life”. A postcolonial studies blog at Emory cites the trinity of “nationalism, violence, caste”, while an Indian blog called “right log” declaims the duopoly of dharma and karma.

Those looking inward or those looking from within, sympathetically, like The Hindu and the Mainstream Weekly lament a lack of “objective conditions”’, leadership failures, internal conflicts, failure to understand national-liberation movement pre-1947 and nation-building sentiment post-1947 and, again, ubiquitous caste and religious practices in Indian democracy. Often, imagery of a titanic, historical clash between the forces of a flexible and creative capitalism and a “dangerously utopian communism” is evoked.

The Left’s evolution has been intertwined with its leaders—from trade unionists in the 1920s to middle-class activists in the 1930s to upper-class socialists in the 1940s to professional politicians in the 1950s.

To Meghnad Desai, writing in The Indian Express, communists “supported British rulers during WWII, denounced independence as illusory, launched premature revolution(s), never understood Indian society and [its] salience of caste”. Adding to it, for contemporary times, is Soutik Biswas writing in the BBC. Communists were affected by an old “and hidebound leadership, break-up of Soviet Union, growing influence of market forces, unravelling of party-society, [and] a politics of identity”. However one looks at it, nationalism, communalism and casteism were and remain insurmountable for the Left in India.

How were these categories tackled by the Indian Left that has always idolised the collective? Specifically how were these approached by its leadership? From Ghate to Dange, from Sundarayya to Namboodiripad and Basu, the Indian Left’s evolution has been intertwined with its leaders. And, it has always churned out a great range of diverse leaders—from trade unionists in the 1920s to middle-class activists in the 1930s to upper-class socialists in the 1940s to professional politicians in the 1950s and thereafter. A small, anecdotal attempt to answer these questions, this essay is a gallery of portraits, covering eight personalities from the Left. Their life-histories, culled from the transcripts of their oral history interviews (NMML), provide a window into where they stood on these four isms.

Our story begins with the Bombay duo of Ghate and Dange, who shaped labour union policies in the 1920s. From there it moves to the trinity of the south Indian countryside of the 1930s-40s and ends with profiles of a formidable and a forgotten Left leader from the east. Setting these portraits in a historical framework, it probes the limits of being Left in India through the 20th century. The idea is to set each individual into their context, and then trace the essentials of his convictions, hoping to provide an integrating perspective of their contribution to the history of India’s parliamentary Left. In the end, it is a typological and personal selection of portraits that is as much about those who reached the heights—Namboodiripad and Basu—as about those who were important but have been forgotten—Ghate and Adhikari.

Sachchidananda Vishnu Ghate, first general secretary of the CPI and editor of the party magazine, New Age, was imprisoned in both imperial and independent India.

Gangadhar Adhikari was a member of the Communist Party of Germany before becoming a member of the CPI. He edited a four-volume collection on Documents of the History of the CPI and authored a famous thesis on “national self-determination” in 1942.

Shripad Amrit Dange was a founder-member of the All-India Trade Union Congress and the CPI, who also joined the Indian National Congress and won elections to the Bombay legislative assembly as well as the Central parliament.

From the south, we have Puchalapalli Sundarayya and Makineni Basavapunniah, members of the CPI from 1934 and notable peasant leaders from the region of Andhra.

Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad needs no introduction; he was the first democratically-elected communist chief minister of Kerala in 1957.

Then there is Jyoti Basu, who embarked upon a legislative career in 1946 that lasted till the year 2000, with the last 23 years as chief minister of West Bengal, and, Bhogendra Jha, a founder-member of CPI in north Bihar.

They could, tentatively, be called “Hindu Communists”, for they were born-Hindu upper-middle caste and upper-middle class men and reflect a regional diversity. Exploring the many ways by which these early communists in colonial India came to their vocation might have answers to questions about the multiple trajectories of communism in post-colonial times.



hate (1896-1970) personifies the mythical foundation of organised Left in India. As someone who held the office of what grew into the first general secretary-ship of the infant and illegal Communist Party of India, any scrutiny of this incorruptible idealist needs to cut through the legend of his later life and go to its beginning. Born in an orthodox Brahmin family in Mangalore and educated at St Xavier’s College, Bombay, Ghate was a voracious reader, with a special interest in Bankim Chandra.

Of a “nationalist bent of mind”, Ghate was also influenced by Tilak’s Kesari and Dange’s anti-Bible agitation. A self-confessed Tilakite, he was not attracted by Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement and its non-violence. He was attracted to Gandhi’s simple English, but not his “equally simple politics”. Among his later influences were George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.

Living in a Brahmin lodge in Bombay that allowed Muslims, but not backward/lower-caste groups, to enter if they wanted to eat the vegetarian fare, Ghate was taken under the wings of C. G. Shah, an early Indian Marxist but not a member of the CPI. His other inspirations were R. B. Lotvala and the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice. Ghate remained in the Congress till 1929, while being alongside Dange, S. S. Mirajkar, K. N. Joglekar and R. S Nimbkar in the Workers and Peasants Party. As he aptly put it, “we were managing everything—AICC, AITUC; [involved with] youth [but not] peasants”.

During the Second World War, Ghate moved to Madras and hosted everyone from Jawaharlal Nehru to Jaya Prakash Narayan, showing bipartisan disregard for the partisan party-politics of the time.

Ghate also read widely in this period: Tolstoy, Philip Spratt and B. F. Bradley, Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky’s Mother. The Russian Revolution (1917), Jallianwala Bagh, Bela Kun’s government in Hungary and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s killing in Germany (all 1919) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (1926-27)—all provided the grist to the trade union mill out of which was spun the CPI. It was initially to be named Indian Communist Party by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi and Satya Bhakta. When thwarted, they set up a separate Indian National Communist Party. Meanwhile, the first addressors of the CPI included the republican and noted Urdu poet Hasrat Mohani, the poet Sarojini Naidu, the socialist Yusuf Meherally and trade unionists Singaravelu Chettiar and N. M. Joshi.

It was more a humanitarian party that dabbled in class-struggle. Faced with communal riots in Bombay in February 1929, it held “communal Muslims” guilty. Ghate recalled Maulana Shaukat Ali as a “rank communalist” with a hand in rioting, in contrast to the Marwaris who were helping the CPI in maintaining peace. Hindu mercantilism made a strange ally of Leninism in Bombay, while the veneration of Gandhi, for Ghate, was infantile adventurism. The inspiration from Moscow was only “imaginary” at this time and the class-character was staunchly middle-caste/class. Any pretensions of being a mass-party would only begin in the late-1930s.

During the Second World War, Ghate moved to Madras to bring out his journal Janshakti, and hosted everyone from Jawaharlal Nehru to Jaya Prakash Narayan, showing bipartisan disregard for the partisan party-politics of the time. He argued, “we still wanted to function in the Congress until Nehru got very wild” and the “Gujarati elements” led by Vallabhbhai Patel started blaming the communists for everything. Then, they had to part ways from the ”bourgeoisie national revolution against imperialism”. Ghate’s nephew would later be a member of the Jana Sangh.

Ghate’s imprisonment in Vellore jail in the 1940s saw him share barracks with Allama Mashriqi, who he called a “liberal Muslim”. He remembering an incident in jail, when Mashriqi chided Punjab premier Sikandar Hayat Khan’s emissary to him for insisting on a loud azan in the morning by telling him that “Quranic prayers meant that you talked with your God quietly”. Mashriqi, though, would tell Ghate off more in that he would pointedly ask him, “you communists are no use...this Bhangi—[is he] your equal?”

For Ghate, India was the mother with Hindustan and Pakistan as her sons though Hindu and Muslim were mistaken bases for nationalities.

In their participation in the debate of that decade, “Pakistan resolution” of the All-India Muslim League, Ghate felt the CPI had “made a mistake…the nationality question, [we] wrongly understood it…we did propagate religion as a basis for nationality, then, when the danger had already come near, we stopped…We did harm ourselves…We did propaganda for Pakistan. It was the wrong idea [of] [P. C.] Joshi, [B. T.] Ranadive and [G. D.] Adhikari”.

For Ghate, India was the mother with Hindustan and Pakistan as her sons though Hindu and Muslim were mistaken bases for nationalities. Other mistakes included, “not paying enough attention to the peasantry, castes and women issues”. Inside, the CPI was a commune and not communal. This last label was reserved only for those members who were sent to join the Muslim League and ended up ”becoming more Muslim than Leaguers”.

Post-1947, Ghate turned his attention to communal riots in which communists “protected the community being overwhelmed, mainly Muslims”. After all, “everyman has a conscience”. The wonder for him was not the violence but its target, as Christians were the “fellows who proselytized”. If this was his assessment on communalism, Ghate’s nationalism emerged in assertions like, “we fight for our country, and we love our country as much as anybody and I did not feel comfortable in Moscow due to non-vegetarianism”. His religiosity lay in the fact that he listened to a recital of Ramayana every day/night by his devout brother and thought “Gita says everything”.

The first CPI general secretary is thus at one with the first Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak to become India’s Prime Minister.



angadhar Adhikari (1898-1981), editor of People’s WarPeople’s Age and Documents of the History of the CPI (IV Volumes), was the writer-editor, teacher-mentor and theorist, who has now gone into almost total eclipse. Born in Bombay and educated there, Bangalore and Berlin, Adhikari belonged to a temple-going family of land clerks, which fell on difficult times and had to move to joint-living arrangements (chawl). His first political memory was the revolutionary Khudiram Bose and his first political influence was Shivaji, followed by Tilak.

A beneficiary of missionary education, Adhikari turned towards science in school, though this interest competed with a belief in religious reformers like R. G. Bhandarkar of the Prarthana Samaj and its Dnyan Prakash magazine. The third stop on his journey of self-awakening was Ernest Hackel, rationalist and atheist. Adhikari wrestled with a “contradiction between social moderate reforms and a national militant struggle”. He too recalled being politically unmoved by the non-cooperation movement and remained a non-political observer of it, even as his brother—a Satyagrahi—was involved.

From a technocratic, “industrialise first” position in 1923, Adhikari moved to a political, “independence first” stand in 1928. For this he had his Berlin years to thank. Until then Adhikari was part of the middle-class troika of “boycott-swadeshi-swaraj” started by Tilak and led by Gandhi. Before Berlin, he had been impressed by Dange’s anti-Bible movement (1920-21) in the Christian colleges of Bombay, involved in Sanskrit poetry and immersed in historical texts like M. G. Ranade’s Rise of Maratha Power. Afterwards, his interest in science saw him offer a scientific understanding of Indian struggle by emphasising agrarian reforms—a theme he picked from R. P. Dutt’s Modern India.

Few Indian communists have had as long and as chequered a career as S. A. Dange (1899-1991). Dange personified both the united rise and the divided fall of the Indian left.

In Germany, studying chemistry, Adhikari met Zakir Hussain, Abid Hussain and Mohammad Mujeeb, who ran an Urdu Circle in Berlin. His German years exposed Adhikari to the religion-nation binary and showed that his illusion that “religion does not matter, nationalism does” was just that. It was also in Germany that Adhikari first read Karl Marx and then John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World. But the man most responsible for Adhikari’s turn towards communism was Virendranath Chattopadhyay: the “kind, considerate and helpful brain and soul behind the Indian Association” in Berlin. 

Chattopadhyay taught Adhikari that a “revolutionary organisation was necessary for striking power”, even if in a nationalist cause. Adhikari embarked on an “application of Marxism-Leninism to Indian problems” and, once back in India in 1928, worked for left unity, given the German experience of the rise of Hitler, due to left disunity. Adhikari remembered his CPI life as one of, “evaluating persons according to one’s experience…people have political differences but they respect each other”.



ew Indian communists have had as long and as chequered a career as S. A. Dange (1899-1991). From his pioneering days as a trade-unionist to his inspirational leadership till his eclipse in the 1980s, Dange personified both the united rise and the divided fall of the Indian left. Born in Ahmednagar in a Hindu family that was imbued with anti-British nationalism, Dange was taken to see the famous Savarkar brothers, when they were arrested/released (1908-10). His neighbourhood had a set of temples; the designated area for protests. As a boy Dange’s cufflinks had Shivaji and Tilak portraits. Inspired by Shivaji’s uprisings, Swami Ram Tirtha and Tilak’s treatise Gita Rahasya (1915), Dange aspired to be a karma-yogi. His anti-imperialism was propped up by vedantic philosophy and, as he recalled, “religiousness was there in me”.

Dange was an emotional non-co-operator. His disillusionment with Congress came when he surmised that they had nothing except “Bapuji”.

Coming from a moneyed family, he had a taste for cinema-going and Marathi novels of Hari Narayan Apte, Ram Ganesh Ghadkari and Keshavsut. He liked P. B. Shelley’s poetry but the swadeshi in him sought out a swadeshi poet in V. J. Karandikar. The same impulse saw him, at the turn of the 1920s, disrupt the Home Rule meetings of the theosophist Annie Besant. In 1920-21, he began his anti-Bible agitation in the “spirit of nationalism” and then self-published his Gandhi vs. Lenin; the latter completed his trinity of influences. 

Insisting that his anti-Bible agitation was a political strike and that “there was nothing of Christian or Bible or Hindu about it”, Dange called it “an action against English Imperialism”. The main question was how to drive out the British and his turn towards dialectical materialism came via the French Revolution, Kropotkin’s anarchism, Carlyle, Rousseau and Voltaire. His verdict on Karl Marx was “logical, correct, and practical” but it was accompanied by his declaration that, “nobody taught us anything”.

Dange was an emotional non-co-operator, with his family’s money coming from shares and not salaries. His disillusionment with Congress came, when he surmised that they had nothing except “Bapuji”. His disillusionment with Bapuji, on the other hand, came from the latter bringing religion into politics with his Khilafat movement. In his reminiscences, Dange had no compunctions in pronouncing Muslims as “bloody fellows” and then proceeding to re-tell a story of how the Khalifa had sold his two beautiful daughters to the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Dange was worried that the secularism of Turkey was spoiled by Gandhi, hardly pausing to think what was happening to the secularism of India. It is not surprising, though, when read along with his assertion that he condemned all criticism of Shivaji as the man who treacherously killed Afzal Khan. He felt Gandhi’s attempt to win Muslims to the national movement would not work because religious struggles did not go with political movements. That this was hypocritical, if not ironical, coming from a man who espoused Tilak’s ideas of brahma and adhyatama was lost on him.

A voracious reader and a cynical man, who believed money counted in social relations, Dange steadily moved towards Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells and Trotsky. By the 1930s, he felt that it was a “haughty Gandhi who preached humility”, even though he called himself a communist, sympathetic to Gandhi. He now liked M. N. Roy because he was “purely” anti-British. He was peeved that the public perception of communists in India at the time was that they must be literally “foreigners” despite their upper-caste Hindu surnames–Joshi, Joglekar, and Nimbkar.

That this “foreign” perception spread far and wide, high and low, can be seen from an episode in the late 1920s, when Dange and his friends were leading a series of strikes in Bombay. At the same time, Vallabhbhai Patel was mounting his Bardoli Satyagraha. When Bombaywallahs offered him 10,000 volunteers, Patel refused. Dange held that Moscow made an error in looking upon Gandhi, Nehru and Patel as cut from the same cloth as Chiang Kai-shek and therefore judging the former to be a “betrayer” like the latter. For himself, his “relations with the Congress were more ancient, as he [too] could feel the national ethos”. After all, Independence–Imperialism–Internationalism, in that order, was Dange’s three-fold mantra.



undarayya (1913-1985) was a restless rebel; a pioneer—if not a prophet—for Telangana peasants. An idealist, he was in turn idolised, as much for his integrity as anything else. Born in Nellore in a landlord family, Sundarayya courted arrest in the civil disobedience movement in the early 1930s and involved himself in the Kisan Sabha with N. G. Ranga later that decade. But his first love was all things Telugu—literature, poetry and history. His earliest hero was the Vishnu-avatar Vamana and his earliest pantheon came from Ramayana and Mahabharata. From the medieval years, tellingly, his icon was the Rajput king Rana Pratap, from whose life, Sundarayya took the following inspiration: “if anybody comes to occupy your country, you have to fight”. He called Pratap an “important, tremendous” influence on himself and was content to classify Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. From the former, he chose the Kakatiya dynasty (12-14 CE) and from the latter two, unsurprisingly, Shivaji, Krishna Deva Raya of Vijaynagar and Ram Mohun Roy.

Basavapunniah (1914-1992) was a keen upholder of “democratisation”, even in strikes; his sense of Indian history, however, revealed the usual dichotomy of Mughal period and Hindu period albeit with reservations at British portrayals of these periods.

This “Hindu trinity” of influences was rounded off, in his own age, by Vivekananda, C. R. Das, Gandhi, Ram Tirtha and Tilak, especially his Gita Rahasya. Inclined towards a reformist Hindu philosophy at this time, Sundarayya demonstrated against the Simon Commission in 1928, joined the Congress in 1929 and started working for the welfare of those he called “Harijan”. Coincidentally, it was also in 1929 that he first came across the Communist Manifesto as well as the on-going conspiracy cases against Indian communists and was involved in a demonstration held on, ironically, 26 January 1930. A “Congress-communist” at this time, Sundarayya promoted inter-communal dining and argued with his Union Jack flying brother-in-law (a district judge), before meeting Amir Haider Khan.

Under “Dada” Amir, he turned a “whole-timer” in May 1932 but he was a “national-minded” whole-timer, who firmly held that “where the economic conditions were better, there politics was better too”. Inspired by Gandhi’s “simple life, boldness in fighting the British and advocacy of Harijans”, Sundarayya reconciled it with his communism in that, both were conflicts between “oppressor and oppressed”. Any hypocrisy on caste-class-community was not to be found in Gandhi but in the Congress leaders’ appropriation of him. Reading Lenin at this time, Sundarayya turned towards the rural poor and their plight (bonded slavery, wages, taxes, tenancy) cured him of his “shastric idealism”; leading him to “rationalistic ideas”.

Crediting Amir Haider Khan for making communists “functional” in the south and hold their own in the trinity with the Congress and the Congress Socialists till 1938-40, Sundarayya put it well: “We wanted more people, who might not fully accept our ideology but accept to the extent it was necessary to work together”.



he academically inclined Basavapunniah (1914-1992) was a respected, if reclusive, member of the parliamentary Left in India, who completed the Andhra duumvirate with Sundarayya. From Guntur, Basavapunniah too came of age during the civil disobedience movement and under the spell of Bhagat Singh. Belonging to a similarly well-to-do landlord family, he was exposed to the Brahmin/Sudra social faultline early on. A person who thought in terms of categories and communities, he claimed to have been never politicised because of a particular individual and never chose to become a disciple of one.

Coming from the Kamma-Reddy dominant Guntur, he studied in Andhra Christian College, where he was exposed to Marxism, Leninism, and socialism and introduced thereafter to a number of his comrades: Rajeshwar Rao, Nagi Reddi, Hanumantha Rao, Sundarayya, N. G. Ranga, Ajoy Ghosh, S. A. Dange and P. C. Joshi. A keen upholder of “democratisation”, even in strikes, his sense of Indian history, however, revealed the usual dichotomy of Mughal period and Hindu period albeit with reservations at British portrayals of these periods showing all as weak and quarrelsome sans nationalism/patriotism.

The peasant’s problem was not God. Communist voters went to Ayyappa temples and did Durga Puja without batting an eyelid.

Basavapunniah moved through Gandhism, Nehru-ism and socialism to Marxism and began political education among Andhra villages to form a base for a powerful agrarian movement between 1935 and 1952-3–to the Nizamat’s liquidation and formation of the linguistic province of Andhra. He believed in a “communism of conscience” and noted that among the simple folk he moved, they never put atheism on the forefront. The peasant’s problem was not God. In the Indian countryside, communist voters went to Ayyappa temples and did Durga Puja without batting an eyelid. The key was an agreement on “common minimum programme” and not a focus on the individual faith.

He admitted the Brahmin intellectual leadership of the national movement comprising, in Andhra/Telangana, the Reddys, Kammas and Kappus but asserted that casteism or community-ism “did not touch us”. He admitted that caste-line had an element of support. He had cordial relations with Congressmen, shared concepts of karma and siddhanta, and held that communism was only its foreign, “economic part”. Thus, he analysed the “Adhikari thesis on national self-determination as an attempt to understand and fit in the idea of Pakistan into some nationality problem but found, by 1946, that it suffered from serious defects”.

Holding that “national question should not be mixed up with the religious or communal question” Basavapunniah denied any flavour of “nationalism” to the Pakistan movement; “It was communalism and we rejected it”. He was willing to accept linguistic nationalism but not religious. Moreover, the “Adhikari thesis was not cutting much ice” and self-determination “was making India communal”. It contained the contradiction, according to Basavapunniah, of “fighting separatism by conceding separatism”. He looked upon the Muslim League initially as an “agent of imperialism” and later only a thin mass-movement. It was not until the CPI members “sent to ML/Pakistan” turned into “Leaguers” that Basavapunniah acknowledged its popular power.

Anyhow, 1947 was not real freedom for him and the party. Basavapunniah felt it was they who had fought the Nizam and his Razakars for two full years before New Delhi’s military intervention and then had to resist for three more years the Indian army. Basavapunniah’s brother-in-law was killed, at this time. However, the story of Hyderabad began, in the first instance, from the fact that the “Nizam was a Muslim; the struggle was against him [and his theocracy]”. Then, there were many “Hindu sympathizers” in the Indian army, who gave arms to the CPI in 1946-48. Basavapunniah held that, after the fall of the Marathas, the Bahmani Sultans and the Nizam had abandoned Hindus, who retained their “national pride”, which—oppressed for 500 years—had now reappeared.



MS (1909-1998) has been the dominant personality in CPI/M from south India. A patriarch, if not patrician, born in Malappuram and educated at Tiruchi, Namboodiripad knew the Rig Veda by heart by the time he entered his teens. He was an avid reader of the nationalist Mathrubhumi magazine and his first brush with public space was the social reform movement of Namboodiri Brahmins, followed by the non-cooperation and Khilafat movements. His house was situated in the Moplah peasants’ area and his family was evacuated during their rebellion in 1921.

Azadi and ahimsa went hand in hand with an attraction towards terrorism and then a rising rationalism. His initiation into communist groups was led by Amir Haider Khan, Sundarayya and Basavapunniah.  

Namboodiripad felt that Khilafat had been more popular than non-cooperation in his region because Muslims (Moplahs) were in the majority. He thought the Hindu-Muslim togetherness sought by the Khilafat movement was undercut by the Moplah rebellion, as it aroused intense anti-Moplah feeling among upper-class Hindus. The resulting violence caused big upheavals among Muslims, who bore the brunt of the reprisals. Still, EMS refused to consider the Moplah rebellion as one of dispossessed Muslim tenants against Hindu landlords and British officials. In his words, it was like “Muslim revivalism”; agrarian rebellion with elements of “communalism” and alleged “conversion of Hindus”. This last served as the “dividing line” in Kerala among the two communities.

With the coming of the Arya Samaj and its shuddhi programme, with Hindi’s promotion, this gap widened. Muslim tenants with no land certainly harboured economic aspirations, while among Hindus, there was an emerging middle-class led by the largely lawyerly Nairs. As Namboodiripad embarked upon his political career in the Congress (1927) and the Congress Socialists (1934), he learnt Hindi at an Arya Samaj centre at Palghat, wore Khadi, took part in the Guruvayoor temple Satyagraha (1929) and was arrested in the civil disobedience movement (1932).

By the mid-1930s, Namboodiripad counted Gokhale, Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru as his influences, to be followed by Harold Laski, Shaw and Trotsky. It was “a mixture of left Congress, vague socialism and Gandhism”. In this were episodically added, Soviet Russia, Subhas Bose, Bhagat Singh, N. G. Ranga, Rajni Palme Dutt and conspiracy cases against the communists. Azadi and ahimsa went hand in hand with an attraction towards terrorism and then a rising rationalism. His initiation into communist groups was led by Amir Haider Khan, Sundarayya and Basavapunniah. But he continued to insist on Gandhism as a “simple way of life/living, outlook towards world”.

He was neither unique nor exceptional in this. Jaya Prakash Narayan strove to be the unifier of the Left, Sampoornanand held on to his attraction to Shankara’s philosophy and Ram Manohar Lohia continued to be “eccentric”. Namboodiripad formally joined the CPI only in 1936, alongside Sajjad Zaheer and his conversion “‘from an ordinary Congressman into a Congress Socialist into a Communist through practical experience and discussion” was complete. But he continued to call himself an “original Congress Socialist, ideologically close to JP”.



asu (1914-2010) was the reticent patrician, most well-known for his 23 unbroken years as chief minister of West Bengal. With an unrivalled understanding in the party of the apparatus of government, he was a “sensible socialist”, had tremendous personal prestige and was, consequently, offered coalition premiership in 1996. Born in Dacca to a doctor father who was privileged enough to go to America to study medicine in 1908-13 and a landlord grandfather (maternal) whose only daughter was Basu’s mother, Basu’s parents moved to Calcutta, when he was of school-going age. They sent him to Loreto and St Xavier’s. Having an “apolitical” set of parents, Basu’s first public memory was that of the Chittagong armoury raid (1930) and the Jesuit father, in his school, being critical of it.

Basu’s analysis of looming partition befits a Congressman that he was not and Hindu Bhadralok that he was. He worried that the “Muslim League was getting more powerful here in Bengal” .  H. S. Suhrawardy “organised the 1946 riots” through his “gangsters” and Hindus led by Syama Prasad Mookerjee merely “retaliated”.

In close succession came the civil disobedience movement and Subhas Bose, but, somehow, Basu missed out on the Bhagat Singh phenomenon. He was sent to London in 1935 to study law and joined the Middle Temple in 1936. It was there that international fascism, English academics like Harold Laski, CPGB members like Palme Dutt, Ben Bradley and Henry Polit, Indian students like Bhupesh Gupta, Mohan Kumaramanglam, Indrajit Gupta, Nikhil Chakravarty, Rajni Patel, P. N. Haksar, Feroze Gandhi and their Marxist Study Group and V. K. Krishna Menon and his Indian Association combined to make a communist out of Basu.

When he returned, he joined the All-India Students’ Federation, came under the spell of peasant-leader Sahajanand Saraswati and was formally made a member of the CPI on 14 January 1940 by Muzaffar Ahmad. Basu was busy setting up a “Friends of the Soviet Union”, which was his way to approach the “free country or free world” dilemma that bedevilled the Congress and Left unity in the early years of the Second World War. Basu recalled Quit India movement not being strong in Bengal, given—among other reasons— the massive famine. He had to go underground for those years, for his work among worker unions, but he emerged in the 1946 elections to defeat Humayun Kabir by 8 votes in a worker constituency.

Basu’s analysis of looming partition befits a Congressman that he was not and Hindu Bhadralok that he was. He worried that the “Muslim League was getting more powerful here in Bengal” and repudiated the Adhikari thesis as it was based on religion. Claiming that the League premier of Bengal H. S. Suhrawardy “organised the 1946 riots” through his “gangsters” and Hindus led by Syama Prasad Mookherjee merely “retaliated”, Basu felt the CPI was helpless in such a scenario.

Basu and his party supported the Bangladesh struggle because it “had almost become a colony of Pakistan”. Internally too, it helped, for theirs was a Hindu middle-class communist party.

Even his reading of the Tebhaga movement could be called communal, for, according to him, it was more against the Muslim League and Suhrawardy’s government, who rejected the idea of two-thirds share of produce being the sharecropper’s right and instead wanted to abolish landlordism, root and branch, which would have hurt largely Hindus, as they were the landlords. Then again, the CPI briefly supported Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy’s attempts for a United Socialist Republic of Bengal in April 1947.

Basu was bitter that Nehru “did not keep the promise to look after 60 lakh [Hindu] refugees from East Pakistan”, while proudly claiming that “we stood by them”—a claim vigorously contested by Mookherjee. Having voted for partition in the Bengal legislative assembly, Basu asserted that the CPI had no “ideological opposition” to independence. Unsurprisingly then, the Telangana movement for him, was first against the Muslim rule of the Nizam and his Razakars. More critically, unlike Sundarayya, Basu believed that the CPI should have stopped agitating the moment Indian forces invaded Hyderabad.

Basu, who was part of the navaratna that broke the CPI, had once shared a jail cell with the Naxalite Charu Mazumdar, whom he called “our leader”. The “left adventurists”—Mazumdar, C. K. Roy Chowdhary, Asit Sen, Suniti Kumar Ghosh, Sarat Dutta, Soren Bose and Mahadev Mukherjee—were expelled from the party on essentially two things. One, as Basu put it, how can China’s chairman be our chairman? Two, there was no mood in Bengal or India for any revolution. Mazumdar’s defeat in the by-elections was proof, for Basu, of his wrong-headedness. Indeed, he would rather Mazumdar discussed “cinema, theatre and culture than unpleasant politics”.

Basu and his party supported the Bangladesh struggle because it "had almost become a colony of Pakistan". Internally, too, it helped, for theirs was a Hindu middle-class communist party, which fulminated against Pakistan. In fact, Basu felt the decline of the CPI/M could be traced to losing the middle ground as the middle-class “are likely to change this way or that”. And so, what he could never imagine happened during his life-time: “a communal party” led a government in New Delhi despite a secular constitution.



hogendra Jha was a bitter bystander by the time of his death. A Maithil Brahmin, he opened his political eye during the Great Depression (1929-33), when his family lost land to moneylenders. This experience made him conscious of the pitiable condition of agriculture/agricultural labour in rural Bihar. Jha was initiated early into the Vedas and Hindu epics by his father, whom he idolised and who gave him the mantra that “real religion was public service”. Aligned with Bhishma’s dying declaration on lok hit or people’s welfare, Jha felt his poverty and deprivation served as bigger schools for his politics than communism and its textbook scientific analysis. Ancient texts and social conditions were his first and remained his foremost influences as he felt no need for “outside” knowledge.

Jha recalled telling Gandhi in a memorable exchange that communism was the real Ram Rajya. In reply, Gandhi said, “if the Raja was like Ram, then why bother with communism”.  

Civil disobedience and Gandhi’s visit to Madhubani in 1935 on an anti-untouchability drive were Jha’s first public engagements. He remembered a quote from Suryodyaya magazine, “two killers in Kalyuga—Gandhi of Vedas, Jinnah of Cows”. When, in 1940, his family were declared outcaste after an incident of inter-community dining in which he had taken part, Jha realised that national revolution remained far-off, while the battle-front of social realities was nearer. Jha was a Gandhian on caste and community and believed that Varna was from ability/achievement and not birth and that Brahmin hypocrisy was distorting Manusmriti. He upheld non-violence though his admiration of Bhagat Singh and his “reason for disenchantment” with Gandhi did not come until the Tripuri session of 1938-39 and Gandhi’s treatment of Subhas Bose.

In the early 1940s, Jha was drifting towards communism, “without meeting any communist”. He recalled telling Gandhi in a memorable exchange that communism was the real Ram Rajya. In reply, Gandhi said, “if the Raja was like Ram, then why bother with communism”. Jha retorted that Gandhi’s Congress was in a capitalist hold and let alone Ram Rajya, it was not even a Congress of unity and struggle. It was around this time that Jha was exposed to the literature coming out of the Socialist Publishing Company (Agra) patronised by Nehru and Bose and run by Narendra Deva and K. M. Ashraf. This included Nehru’s writings as well as Lenin’s and JP’s and Marx’s.

His other influences at this time included the Kisan Sabha leader Sahajanand Saraswati, M. N. Roy and the Hindi literary troika of Rahul Sankrityayan, Ramdhari Dinkar and Ramvriksha Benipuri. Along with them, he too believed that nothing could happen without getting rid of the British and without unity, the British could not be got rid of. As the “Imperial War” became “People’s War” in 1941, Jha related to Communist Internationalism with the Upanishadic saying “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. Collective responsibility for Jha was the crux of all things communist: among Kisan, Mazdoor and students, among revolutionaries and socialists, and so he remained an upholder of Left unity till 1945-46.

For much of the 1940s, he called himself a “Satyagrahi-communist” and, so–independent of the party line–he supported the Quit India movement. As he told the British judge, when on trial: “I want you out but not the Japanese in”. Comparing the siege of Moscow with the siege of Chittor, Jha held that theoretically “People’s war” was fine but practically speaking the CPI should have opposed the war effort, as the Congress did and should have been part of Quit India. Jha was jailed, for his participation in it.

CPI's absence from the lok yudha for purna swaraj meant that Lahore, where that vow had been taken was now in a foreign country, as was the NWFP, where the Rig Veda was composed. 

In a capitalist society, Jha believed, “you do what society lets you do, if you try any more than it tolerates, you lose power/influence”. His sacrifice, struggle, and sincerity attracted the youth though by the election of 1946, given the Congress’ propaganda against gaddaar communists, Jha believed upper-middle-castes would vote anyone but “not me”. He sought to combine class-struggle and national-struggle but realised that the Congress was committed “to not let February revolution turn into October”. A compromising British and a collaborating Congress, for Jha, snuffed the communists out.

On the salient events of 1946-48, Jha was curiously akin to a Congressman. He agreed that the Telangana struggle was anti-feudal but, it was also “national-territorial” as the Nizam impossibly wanted to stay out of the Indian Union. He held the Muslim League responsible for the violence around the “Direct Action Day” and that “self-determination” was only for linguist groups. Otherwise, as he put it, “Ishwar Allah tero naam, Ishwar killed Gandhi, Allah killed unity’.

He lamented, “Had we communists entered mainstream in 1942, we could have avoided 1947”. CPI missed Jha’s memo and its absence from the lok yudha for purna swaraj meant that Lahore, where that vow had been taken was now in a foreign country as was the NWFP, where the Rig Veda was composed. Jha was not alone in thinking like this. Sahajanand Saraswati left the CPI in 1946 on the national self-determination question, as much as the agrarian question. For Jha, all those who stayed in Hindustan were Hindus (including Muslims), as the word Hindu did not mean merely religion. August 1947 was not that dawn for him, not only because “it was by an agreement and everything as before stayed” but also because it was a “vibhajit azadi” (divided freedom).

Jha, in his own words, “neither a son of a Diwan like Gandhi nor a son of a millionaire like Nehru”, was attracted by neither blind Soviet worship nor blind Chinese following. He supported Stalin’s advice to Dange, Ghosh, Rao and Basavapunniah in 1951 that a “third, Indian way” should be found to change the “Haakim, Hukkam, Kanoon, Kachehari, Zamindari aur Poonjivaadi”.

Had Gandhi not been murdered by Godse, partition would have been complete, then all Muslims would have gone there, and today this terrorism would not have been here…when Pakistan moves ahead, from Kashmir, its target will be whole of India.

The party’s inability to remain in the mainstream was a mistake, for him. But his “primitive communism” came not from Marx but Satyuga. Ram was a “national hero” for him, not only religious, and he argued that Muslims were not willing to accept “ancient Indian traditions”—dharma. Jha insisted he was irreligious but not adharmi. He was panth-nirapeksha (non-sectarian) but not dharma-nirapeksha (secular)—an understanding he shares with the current Union home minister Rajnath Singh.

Jha believed that democracy and demagoguery contained much that was merely for public consumption—“sunane ke liye, karne ke liye nahin” (to talk, not to do). But, his views on Indian Muslims and Christians are quite different from the usual left perspective:

“...Had Gandhi not been murdered by Godse, partition would have been complete, then all Muslims would have gone there, and today this terrorism would not have been here…If you can convert Hindus to Islam, then why not vice-versa...when Pakistan moves ahead, from Kashmir, its target will be whole of India. Mizoram and Nagaland too are religious affairs. Pope John Paul said that first century saw Africa and America become Christian, second century will see Asia...”



riting in The Guardian on May 23, 2014, in the aftermath of the general election results, historian Vijay Prashad expressed the hope that the issues of “livelihood, inequality, civil liberties [and] minority rights” mean that there will always be an appeal for a “genuinely social democratic party, for the communists”.  However, given their aforementioned ways of coming into being on these issues, one wonders what is genuine and who is a communist in India. Eric Hobsbawm wrote in the opening pages of his Age of Extremes that “the destruction of past is one of the most characteristic eerie phenomena of the late-20th century”. This is truer still of the trajectories of inspiration from 1917, one of whom is the Indian left, which today is on the periphery of Indian political narratives.

From covert, anti-colonial beginnings in the early 1920s to overt electoral participation in the early-1950s, from emerging as the principal opposition in the national parliament to winning state elections in Kerala and West Bengal, it was “the end of the [obscure] beginning” for the party/movement. Equally, from multiple schisms and splits in the 1960s-70s and 80s to deflation and decomposition in the age of Mandal and Mandir politics, from propping the National Front government (1989-91) to forming the United Front government (1996-98) and from enjoying a watershed parliamentary hurrah in 2004 while precipitating an unprecedented upsurge in the Naxal-Maoist movement, it feels like “the beginning of the end”.

In his introduction to The Indian Ideology, Perry Anderson reflected that “the fundamental reason for the relative political weakness of the Indian left…lay in the fusion of nation with religion in the struggle for independence…In the subcontinent, that was always, as it has remained, the underlying sociological reality”. Its consequent marginalisation has resulted in “a passive accommodation to the myths of the Indian Ideology, and the crimes of the state committed in their name”.

Any recovery, therefore, requires a complete “break with these [myths]”. In her book on May 1968 and its afterlives, Kristin Ross remembered Sartre defining the French Communist Party on the Algerian Question as “la gauche respectueuse”: “a left that respects the values of the right even if it is conscious of not sharing them”. 

A left will have to emerge in India outside the sway of the country’s accepted pieties; perhaps, something like “Dada” Amir Haider Khan, who used to sign himself off as “a man without a country”.


 A version of this paper was presented in the CSMCH seminar series at the University of Edinburgh in November 2017. That opportunity came thanks to CSMCH—IASH post-doctoral fellowship and I am grateful to Dr Talat Ahmed, Dr Emil Chabal and Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson.