Book Review: Aspiring For Utopia In Colonial India

Book Review: Aspiring For Utopia In Colonial India
Book Review: Ali Raza, Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2020. Also available Lahore: Folio Books, 2021), pp. 332.

The book under review is about a moment in South Asian history which can be called utopian, optimistic, revolutionary, innovative and experimental all at once. These descriptive adjectives do not exhaust the way the first half of the twentieth century in colonial India can be remembered. Our run-of-the mill histories only scratch the surface, where life was in a ferment of a romance as well as a clash of civilizations. What with round table conferences, loin-clad and suit-attired leaders leading marches of motley crowds, the ICS and Army brown sahibs, and religious renaissances of various kinds, even these histories are colorful enough.

Dr. Ali Raza, an academic at one of Pakistan’s most prestigious universities, Lahore University of Management Sciences, has opened up another world coexisting with this one. This world is of revolutionaries inspired with the vision of a world where exploitation, the oppression of class, caste, gender and race would come to an end. This world ultimately traces its raison d’etre to the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and its twentieth century laboratory was the Soviet Union. Yet, insists Ali, the Indian Marxists were grounded into local realities and lived the revolution in their daily lives. They were inspired not only by the utopia of egalitarianism but, in common with the major political parties of India, also by anti-colonial and anti-imperial ideas. Indeed, both were parts of the same struggle to free the human spirit from all kinds of shackles, to fight and overthrow the structures of oppression and to be free in the real sense. For this, as the book records, they travelled across oceans, over formidable mountains and traversed across lands as if the whole earth belonged to them for a momentous struggle against European empires and entrenched capital, feudal and dynastic local overlords.

The book has seven chapters and an epilogue which sums up the spirit of the ferment of that period of promise and briefly mentions the present condition of such dreams. The first chapter, ‘Revolutionary Pasts’, gives a broad outline of what I have summed up above. Its main point is that this was a period when anything and everything seemed possible. The second, ‘Travelers, Migrants, Rebels’, introduces the dramatis personae: the people who dared to try to make the impossible possible. Among these were Gurmukh Singh and Prithvi Singh Azad who had been arrested in Afghanistan and, as was common in such cases, beaten, starved and incarcerated. These were just the tip of the iceberg.

Many Indians were involved in struggles of various kinds. Some were nationalists just wanting the British rule over India to end, others were communists who wanted to build a new world and some were just terrorists risking their lives for the mission of the moment, whatever it may have been. One major anti-Raj movement covered in this chapter is about the Ghadar Party. This party was formed by Indian students, intellectuals and émigré Indians who happened to be mostly Sikhs living in the United States and Canada. The experience of racism, the consciousness of being conquered people and the alienation emigres feel very acutely, even when they are financially well off, was their main driving force. Among their leaders were Sohan Singh Bhakna, Lala Hardayal, Madan Lal Dhingra and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The rank and file were Indian, mostly Punjabi, peasants while some of the emigres also came to help provoke an anti-colonial revolt. This, however, was firmly suppressed.

Chapter 3,’ Break with the Old World’, is about the way Indians gravitated to the Soviet Union to learn about the creed which inspired them. It was an experience which, in both literal and metaphorical senses, made them break away from the ‘Old World.’ Some of them, Like Dada Amir Haider Khan, had also experienced discrimination and racism as a lascar. He went on to connect these negative experiences with the philosophy of Marxism which explained the roots of the misery of the working classes to him in a manner which he found intellectually satisfactory and emotionally appealing. He made his way to the Soviet Union, which had opened up institutions where people from all over the world were not only taught the principles of communism, but also the military sciences. Indians who had left their country in the Khilafat Movement, like Shaukat Usmani, also gravitated to Moscow. Their journeys across the steppes are like a spy thriller, and one wonders that people can endure so much, dare so much and suffer so much in pursuit of ideas and goals which, except to them, would appear to be quixotic. Nor was Dada Amir Haider Khan the only one who went to Moscow. Naina Singh Dhoot, Rattan Singh, and many others went on this pilgrimage.

Nor were women excluded from the romance of the new world in the making. Suhashini Chattopadhyay, younger sister of the well-known Sarojini Naidu, also went to Moscow and, on her return, became the first woman to join the Communist Party of India. Another woman who did so and wrote about it was Bina Das, who spent nine years in jail upon her return home. But women had a more difficult time of it because they also had to endure male sexual advances. Thus Sushila Kumari, an eighteen-year old girl, had to marry Chain Singh Chain, first only in name and then in reality. M. N. Roy, however, is perhaps the most flamboyant figure among the communists who had a high profile both in the intelligence community of the Raj and also in the Soviet Union. The colonial authorities interrogated them and, of course, this often involved the use of third-degree methods. Since the Soviet Union was not a location but an ideal for the Indian communists, they would justify everything Lenin and Stalin did. Even when Indian communists themselves suffered at the hands of Stalin - some were even killed - they did not blame the Soviets.

Even the demise of the Comintern, the very organization which was meant to export communism abroad and which catered to the Indians, was shrugged off or even eulogistically praised in the Indian leftist publications. There were a few exceptions, however, to this general trend. Fida Ali, a returnee from Moscow, confessed that he had a ‘wretched time in Moscow’ (p. 103). However, many of those who were engaged in the struggle against oppression could not come under only one classificatory category.

As Chapter 5, ‘Entangled Histories’, tells us, some like Darshan Singh Pheruman was a Ghaddarite, a worker of the Kirti Kisan Party, a peasant movement, an Akali and a communist. As the author points out, a number of developments, not least Stalinist rigidity and the Raj’s own paranoid fear of the communists (to which chapter 6 entitled ‘Red Scare’ is dedicated), contributed in creating a political space in which ‘multiple organizational and ideological affiliations were increasingly difficult, if not, impossible, to negotiate’ (p. 181).

Chapter 7, entitled ‘A Dream Deferred’, follows from the Raj’s persecution of communists through policing, reporting and trials. The most well-known of these trials which has pride of place in Chapter 6 is the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929. This has been described as a ‘gigantic’ trial in which those who went to jail actually learned from each other more than their fragmented lives, ever on the run, would have made possible. But all these proactive actions by law enforcement agencies led to the what the author calls the postponement of the dream of a just world. However, it was not just exhaustion or the consequence of harassment which resulted in this. It was World War II in which Hitler attacked the Soviet Union which, consequently became an ally of the West. Indian communists, who had spent lifetimes denouncing Western imperialism, now had to defend this war. They called it the ‘Peoples’ War,’ but the change was not easy. Further, there was the question of Pakistan, which the communists had always described as an imperialist strategy to divide the working people and an outpost of the West. Now they started seeing it as a movement of self-determination which, in principle, the Soviet Union granted to all ethnic groups.

The epilogue tolls the bell of a passing era. In India, the communists, though always in a minority, survived as minor opposition parties; in Pakistan, even this did not happen. Communist parties were banned though the National Awami Party and the Mazdoor Kisan Party as well as some splinter groups managed to survive with all attendant harassment by the police and the intelligence agencies. Ali Raza ends the book with a haunting question: should the search for a better, more just, more egalitarian world come to an end? He says it should not but provides no convincing answer.

Of course, he is right in saying that the history which he has written provides ‘the imaginative resources to cultivate that ethic’ which inspired the intrepid visionaries he brings back to life (p. 257). Yet, that is a justification for writing this book, not an answer to the nagging question: ‘what is to be done?’ And, as if to drive his point home, he ends on the story of his uncle, who was also a revolutionary and whose life, full of struggle and frustration, ended without any apparent success. It is such a profoundly moving story that one can only put down the book with tears in the eyes.

But is it the answer Ali Raza wants us to take home? I am sure it is not. Let me, therefore, intrude upon this narrative an answer which appeals to me. It is not one which would meet with the approval of the unsung heroes who parade this book, and I suspect not the author himself, but I would be dishonest if I do not spell it out even if it makes me look ridiculous and fatuous. Personally, I am inspired by the welfare state as one finds in the Scandinavian countries and even Canada, though it is disappearing in Britain unfortunately. But this answer, not involving the blood-letting in revolutions nor the authoritarianism of the Soviets, Maoism, Pol Pot and Cuba - does not appeal to revolutionaries.

So, let me go back to the book. It is a major scholarly work which draws upon a large archive of intelligence reports, police reports, biographies and memoirs of revolutionaries, memoranda by colonial officials, publications of the political left, thousands of pages of trials and other published documents. In fact, the bibliography is so impressive that one doubts if any scholar could have worked harder to consult so many sources.

Ali Raza writes with sympathy for the revolutionaries (as who would have the heart not to?) but no bias. He makes their wide-eyed idealism, their utopianism and their impracticality quite clear. He writes with the dispassionateness of a scholar, which is nearly an impossible task if one is describing something which one quite rightly considers a quintessentially human desire to aspire for a just world. To conclude, I recommend this book to not only historians, not only left-leaning intellectuals, but to all those who want to know about a forgotten or little-known aspect of South Asian history. I also recommend it to those who still aspire for a better world but with the rather foolish hope that their eyes will turn to the welfare state and not the revolution.