Hari Vasudevan : In remembrance

More than just communism

Publication: The Telegraph Date: Link:

In India, the Russian Revolution and communism have come to be synonymous. But there was a time when it was not so, and a centennial year is an occasion when it is worth remembering the more complex story of inspiration and legacy that came of the events of 1917 in Russia.

True, this is not easily done. By the time of Soviet disintegration in 1991, in India as in much of the world, remembering the Russian Revolution was a communist ritual, dutifully conducted on November 6.

This has continued to the present. The Indian communist party press — New Age, Deshabhimani, Navayug, Ganashakti and many others — produced the striking red-edged supplements with a somewhat benign-looking Lenin staring at the world to mark the occasion.

Inside, there have figured assemblages of the grand narrative of the 20th century — the rise of Soviet power and the global projection of the communist challenge, suitably adjusted to tell the nation’s story of communism from S.A. Dange and Muzaffar Ahmad to E.M.S. Namboodiripad, with sharp asides on which party had failed to observe which line.

Meetings have tended to take place at Lenin statues through the country. The celebrations have mainly followed at Ajoy Bhavan or the communes off the Asaf Ali Road in Delhi or in places of congregation on a par with Bhupesh Bhavan in Calcutta.

There would be “CPI cha” on offer — without milk and with a touch of lemon — a throwback to the Russian traditions that M.N. Roy, the Indian Comintern leader, noted in Moscow in 1920.

This was the normal fare at Indo-Soviet communist meetings along with plates of cucumber, tomato and cheese delicately sliced with salami thrown in for non-vegetarians. 

Through all the fanfare, the events marked a further year of solidarity during the Cold War, and after 1991, everything that was left behind. This was solidarity built not only on political parties and trades unions but one that permeated a larger ambience.

“Communism” and stories of the Russian Revolution were associated with the illustrated output of Soviet presses and the People’s Publishing House that were distributed in schools — with the strains of communist marches and melodies of the communist cultural movements that were passed around on Melodiia records, magnetic tapes or CDs.

The more fervent followers of communism listened to the Bengali services of Moscow Radio and the odd broadcast from the People’s Republic of China, the former introduced by the telltale lilt of the popular song Evenings in Moscow. After 1991, the old faithful continued to look back with nostalgia.

Significantly, there were marked divisions. The Revolution was celebrated independently in China and the Soviet Union, who had their own “take” on the occasion. In India, different parties had their own stories and legends to pass around — whether the SUCI or the RSP, CPI, CPM or the CPML.

Outside the communist fraternity, newspapers docketed the experience and restricted themselves to noting one more year of the observance of its origin by the communist world from Cuba to Korea — the ritual, not the event, attracting comment.

American Sovietologists pored over who was seen closest to whom at what podium in Moscow, where all spontaneity had been wrung out of the event by the heavy bureaucracy of the Soviet communist party.

This harked to a complexity to the way the Revolution was received in the past but one that seldom attracted comment in the present, least of all in the USSR, which barred its own citizens let alone foreigners from free access to the archives dealing with the foundations of the Soviet state.

In India, it was an unusual story. Socialism, let alone communism, attracted little discussion before 1917 and the Bolshevik uprising of October 25 (by the Julian Calendar). True, on October 23, when the now-forgotten Indian revolutionary, Virendranath Chattopadhyay, the villain of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, made contact with the Bolshevik establishment, he had already made interventions in socialist circles in Stockholm.

But he was a true-blue nationalist who had a smattering of reading on the Left — his awareness not much off that of Har Dayal, who authored a book on Marx. For them, the Russian Revolution produced a sense of liberation — taking place as it did in the largest country in the world and one of the major powers of the day. Admirers of Russian revolutionaries, Indian revolutionaries were deeply moved by the fall of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917.

But Russia’s Provisional Government refused to provide even tacit support to the Indian revolutionaries based in Kabul (Mahindra Pratap, Mohammad Barkatullah and others).

Bolshevik power re-ignited the magic. Not because it was a communist revolution but because it held out promise for national emancipation and, most emphatically, from its early days committed Bolshevik Russia to a quest for India’s freedom.

A number of Indian revolutionaries rallied around Bolshevism during the Russian Civil War, appearing at the Baku Congress of the Workers of the East in 1920. Communism threatened to overlay nationalism on the Bolshevik agenda for India, after M.N. Roy’s formation of the Communist Party of India in October 1921 in Tashkent. And many duly left the ranks of “fellow travellers”, most well known being the revolutionaries Abdur Rab and M.P.B.T. Acharya.

But, once again, the development of a Soviet civilisation model during the 1920s and 1930s, for all its inner tragedy and oppression, drew the attention of Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and, significantly, the future Swatantra Party leader Minoo Masani.

As planning came to shape India’s industrial growth after 1947, the economists of the Indian Statistical Institute and the finance ministry in Delhi engaged with Moscow and Beijing to draw on their experience. The language of the Second Five Year Plan declared its “socialist character” — though the socialism would be home-grown and forged against the background of conflict with the CPI in Andhra and Kerala.

From all this emerges the solid fact that India’s modern national ethos evolved in the shadow of the Russian Revolution; the symbols and practices of the October Revolution that was born from it entered the pattern of India’s state construction.

Before and during the Cold War, the legacy of the revolution symbolised global alternatives and provided support to nationalism in an era where the country’s liberationist urges had only popular enthusiasm to back them: where a new crop of national leaders sought to be more than understudies to the great powers of the day. 

For India, the Russian Revolution was more than communism. It deeply marked the country’s coming of age.

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