Six weeks after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the (then undivided) Communist Party of India held a party congress in Calcutta. The General Secretary of the CPI was P. C. Joshi, who was of the opinion that the party must support Jawaharlal Nehru’s new Government. He believed that Nehru’s Cabinet represented a wide spectrum of public opinion; and that it contained many progressive and patriotic leaders. At this party congress, however, the Joshi line was rejected in favour of a more radical alternative proposed by B. T. Ranadive. This saw a ‘developing revolutionary wave’ within the country. ‘India has never before seen such a sweep’, it argued: ‘never seen the armed forces collapsing so easily before popular pressure; never seen the working classes fighting with such abandon and courage’.

Ranadive claimed that ‘the Central Government, manned by leaders of the National Congress, is the avowed enemy of the national democratic revolution’. In a Political Thesis presented at the meeting in Calcutta, he insisted that ‘the so-called “transfer of power” [in August 1947] was one of the biggest pieces of political and economic appeasement of the bourgeoisie… From the stand point of the revolution all that it means is that henceforth the bourgeoisie will guard the colonial order’. The Thesis went on: ‘The leadership of the Indian National Congress, representing the interests of the Indian capitalist class, thus betrayed the revolutionary movement at a time when it was on the point of overthrowing the imperialist order’. These long-winded sentences were then converted into a catchy slogan: ‘Ye Azaadi Jhooti Hai!’ (This is a false freedom!).

The Joshi line mandated support for the Nehru Government, as it sought to heal the wounds of Partition, to unite a divided nation, and to construct a democratic social order based on a new Constitution. On the other hand, the Ranadive line mandated a armed struggle led and organized by the CPI, whereby ‘the present State will be replaced by a People’s Democratic Republic—a republic of workers, peasants and oppressed middle classes’. ‘People ask what happens to the Government?’, wrote Ranadive: ‘Does a time come when somebody else may be prepared to take power and turn this Government out? Yes. That is what we visualise’.

Ranadive’s line prevailed in the party Congress, its victory confirmed by a pathetic recantation extracted from P. C. Joshi, where he stated that ‘I am not merely the embodiment of right reformism, an arch bureaucrat, but a student intellectual thrown into Party leadership by the accident of history. In all my writings Gandhi, Nehru and Patel rolled into one—could not have desired a better agent inside the Communist Party’.

The line of armed struggle was inspired by a peasant movement in Telengana, where hundreds of villages had passed out of the hands of the Nizam’s administration and were now controlled by the Communists. But the Nizam of Hyderabad was not Jawaharlal Nehru. He ran a notoriously authoritarian administration, which enjoyed little support or legitimacy. On the other hand, the Indian Prime Minister was a genuinely popular leader. And the Indian Government as a whole had behind it the halo of a countrywide freedom struggle.

The Communists had grievously under-estimated the strength and legitimacy of the Indian State. In three years of armed struggle they made little progress. In 1951 the Ranadive line was officially disavowed, and the Communists re-entered the democratic process. The mistake had been a costly one—for the Communists (who had lost many of their cadres), and for the Government (which had to divert its energies from the task of nation-building).

In letters written to State Governments in 1948 and 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru warned them to be alert to the threats from the insurrectionists. ‘The Communists in India’, he wrote, ‘have even from the Communist point of view, adopted a very wrong course. They have gone in for terrorist activities and sabotage and raised a volume of feeling against them’. In a letter of 4th June 1949, he noted the parallels between extremists of right and left. ‘Communalism and the R.S. S. movement’, he observed, ‘exhibit an amazing narrowness in outlook, even from the opportunist point of view.’ He went on: ‘Communism certainly attracts idealists as well as opportunists. But the way it functions is devoid completely of any moral standard or even any thought for India’s good.’

I recall these events now because this year marks the sixtieth anniverary of the launching of that failed Communist insurrection. As it happens, there is active, as I write, a fresh left-wing insurgency that seeks likewise to destroy Indian democracy. This is led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), more familiarly known as the Naxalites. There is then a noticeable similiarity between past and present; but there is also a depressing difference. Now, in 2008, India lacks leaders of the calibre and commitment of Jawaharlal Nehru, leaders capable of renewing and reaffirming the democratic centre against the extremists.

Published in The Hindu, 8/6/2008