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CPI was first communist party in world to win election. Then came its identity crisis and fall

Within a decade of coming to power in Kerala in 1957, the cracks in the Communist Party were showing. A British 'spy', Nehru, and China made them wider.

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PastForward is a deep research offering from ThePrint on issues from India’s modern history that continue to guide the present and determine the future. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Indians are now hungrier and curiouser to know what brought us to key issues of the day. Here is the link to the previous editions of PastForward on Indian history, Green Revolution, 1962 India-China war, J&K accession, caste census and Pokhran nuclear tests.

The revolution began late one night in February 1950, in a small building with a sloping, tiled roof, near St George’s Church. Led by to-be Member of Parliament V. Viswanatha Menon, some 30 communists had assembled to storm the Edappally police station in Kochi, where their comrades had been jailed. Things didn’t go well: Gangadharan Pillai, the officer with the keys to the lockup, had left, maybe to use the toilet. A brawl broke out; two police officers were, tragically, killed. The revolutionaries fled.

That night would lead several people to support the communists—police atrocity was the great unifier.

Then, in 1957, the Communist Party of India registered a historic electoral victory, forming the world’s first democratically elected communist government in the state of Kerala, and becoming the largest opposition party in Parliament. The election win was a triumph for communists who had embraced parliamentary democracy, rejecting ideologue BT Ranadive’s efforts to spark revolution across India.

Five years after its victory, though, the CPI had fragmented beyond recognition.

When the EMS Namboodiripad-led Communist government was dismissed by the central government in 1959, the CPI newspaper New Age was running headlines saying history would never forgive Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. By 1964, battered by the war on India’s eastern borders two years ago, they were saying history would never forgive the Chinese.

What happened to the Communist Party of India isn’t just a story of geopolitics and international intrigue. It’s also a story of a grave identity crisis.


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The rise and fall of Red Kerala

How did it all unfurl in a matter of years? It had to do with protests, the Church, the Nairs and Nehru.

When EMS Namboodiripad had come to power in 1959, he had declared that the Kerala government was his “child to nurse.” But the nursing didn’t go to plan: Internal discord rose soon after the government was elected. In reaction to a piling food crisis and issues over education and land, violence broke as the communist cadre took to arms to quell protests. The next two years painted the communists red—except this time, it was the tinge of embarrassment.

The communists also confronted those great Indian realities: Caste and communal identity. The Church and the Nairs, the two main landholding blocs, united to resist land reforms, scholar Georges Lieten has noted. The government’s efforts to bring education under state control, and increase access for Ezhavas, Muslims and Adivasis, incensed the Church.

“Lepers,” Nair-community leader Mannath Padmanabhan called the communist ministers in 1959. “If the people wrest power from these ministers and subject them to trial, their ears and noses will have to be chopped off or they will have to be whipped in public.”

And the central government was watching closely. Nehru was tracking the situation with concern. “I said in Calcutta somewhere that the people of Kerala have been among the most peaceful of India. I do believe that. But they are no longer so,” he said in a speech to the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting on 10 August 1958.

A cartoon depicting anti-Communists as taking an axe to the Indian Constitution, as seen in the 2 August 1959 issue of New Age | Photo: Raghav Bikhchandani

Eleven days later, Nehru and then-home minister GB Pant met EMS in New Delhi. The chief minister had accused the Congress MPs of “slander” against Kerala in September 1958, after several people brought up instances of violence in the state. SA Dange, founding member of the CPI, accused the Congress of “leading a crusade” against the Kerala government, which Nehru said made him a “little distressed.”

Nehru visited Kerala in June 1959, following violence, mass arrests, and demonstrations against the government. “This Kerala business is very complicated and distressing,” he wrote in a letter to the then-governor of Bombay on 23 June 1959. By 30 June, Nehru had made up his mind: The “only democratic way” of dealing with the situation would be to hold elections in the state.

“Having much experience of political and like developments in India during the last 40 years, I do not remember seeing anything like what is happening in Kerala and the passions that have been roused there,” he wrote in a letter to a parliamentarian on 24 July 1959.

By the end of the week, the central government dismissed the Communist government in Kerala and imposed President’s Rule. “We have been most reluctant to have any kind of Central intervention, but we have felt that it is no longer possible to allow matters to deteriorate, leading to continuing conflicts and human suffering,” Nehru wrote in a message to the governor on 31 July 1959, to be conveyed to EMS. “I should like to express my gratitude to you for the courtesy which you have always shown to me and my regret that circumstances should have developed as they have done,” he signed off.

Mathews’ cartoon on the people “rising up” to elect the Communist government in 1957, as seen in New Age | Photo: Humra Laeeq

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An identity crisis

First came the CPI’s loyalty and nationalism test. Nehru asked the question. “The basic point which troubles me goes deeper. What does the Communist Party of India stand for?” he asked in a 1958 letter to EMS Namboodiripad. In his reply, Namboodiripad wrote that there was no question of the CPI’s ‘first loyalty’ to anybody but to “the working class of our own country.” The CPI could not replicate its previous win in the Kerala election of 1960, held after the President’s Rule was lifted, losing two-thirds of its seats.

The real test of the CPI’s loyalty came three years later when battle lines were literally drawn between India and China. Would India’s communists support the Communist International, or would they support their own country? And, more importantly, would they be able to stand alongside the ‘bourgeois’ Congress?

By this point, the cracks in the party had already begun to show, with different members pledging support to the Soviet Union and China, as relations between the two communist countries soured. Even the US was rumoured to be involved, owing to paranoia during the Cold War. While direct involvement seems unlikely, the CIA’s declassified documents show that America was closely monitoring developments in the state with interest.

In 1959, declassified documents record, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Chinese leader Mao Zedong had clashed on the border dispute with India. Although Nehru represented bourgeois interests, Khrushchev argued, “Who would be better than him?” Chinese policies, he argued, were pushing India into the United States camp.

Following China’s annexation of Tibet, CPI leaders had repeatedly expressed sympathies with the Chinese government’s position, in public statements and through party mouthpiece New Age. The 5 April 1959 issue features numerous such instances, including a CPI statement blaming the “considerable and wanton suffering” in Tibet on reactionary “foreign imperialist”-backed “serf-owners who wish to prevent the dawn of modern enlightenment and equality” in the region.

However, after the death of party chief and New Age editor Ajoy Ghosh, and amid the possibilities of rethinking its historical support for China during the war, the CPI found itself in an internal ideological bind and power struggle between factions led by SA Dange, EMS Namboodiripad and P.C. Joshi.

But the nail in the coffin came from the National Archives of India: In letters written in 1924 to the Viceroy of India, founding member of the CPI SA Dange had offered to act as a spy for the British. The CPI was bitterly divided, with one faction saying the letters were forged while the other outraged. In October 1964, the party officially split.

“We had to take decisions on our own,” CPI(M) member Hannan Mollah told ThePrint. “In our party, we said we should have an independent understanding on the basis of Marxism and Leninism. We should not be guided by any foreign power. At that time, an ideological battle existed between the Soviets and China.”

In an early 1964 issue. New Age expresses its support for anti-imperialist movements in African countries | Photo: Raghav Bikhchandani

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The fifth column

Then there was the Tibet test. While the constitutional crisis in Kerala was brewing, the CPI was further distracted by international developments—for which they had to answer in Indian parliament. On 23 March 1959, China’s invasion of Tibet that led to massive uprising in Lhasa sprouted heated debates in Parliament, causing the first crack in the Indian Communist conscience. The CPI was taken to task, with politicians from other parties questioning their loyalty.

Praja Socialist Party’s Acharya Kriplani drew attention to the activity of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Lhasa. Invoking Mao Zedong’s 1949 telegram to the CPI where the Chinese leader lauded the Indian effort to break from the “yoke of imperialism”, Kriplani hinted at the first signs of the Indian communists standing as the fifth column for India’s politics.

Recalling that the communists didn’t think India attained ‘independence’ in 1947, for the Congress stalwarts were very much the “class organisation of the capitalists,” Kriplani’s comment that “there is one and the same family for communists all over the world, wherever they may be born” was an attack on the CPI’s patriotic sentiment. He further layered it with a statement saying, “In the Communists’ eyes, our government is a collaborator with Western imperialisms.”

Hiren Mukherjee, the most vocal defendant of CPI’s patriotism, was at the forefront in Parliament. Sprinkling his defence with patriotic fervour, Mukherjee didn’t back from referring to the Chinese Communist revolution as a ‘failed one’. While he made an impassioned Ramayana reference, a Parliament member commented, “Being a Communist you still know Sanskrit.”

And members of Parliament didn’t run out of instances they could turn into a charge against the CPI. On 28 November 1962, Andhra Pradesh Rajya Sabha member Yashoda Reddy mentioned that he heard a Communist member saying India is mortgaging all her liberty “just because China has occupied a few acres of India.”

There was no dearth of pointed critique towards communists, the Chinese, and the CPI. The Defence of India Act 1962 wasn’t only about protecting land borders. It teased out those who didn’t align with the momentum of the mainstream political force—if you were ‘anti-war’, you were disqualified as an Indian.

Cricketer-turned-politician Vijaya Ananda, or Vizzy, minced no words in saying as much: “After all, when you are at war you have to introduce measures which you would not have otherwise. This measure is against people who are saboteurs, who are fifth columnists, who do underground work to come in the way of the war effort. It is also for those who are anti-national and anti-war minded.” He went as far as to suggest concentration camps for “every Communist in the country” because “a leopard never changes its spots.”

HN Mukherjee desperately tried to hold both international affiliations with the communists and a sense of patriotism towards India — but for members of Parliament, the two couldn’t simply be reconciled, and Congress member AC Guha reminded Parliament: “In communist parlance, patriot was a word of abuse.”

While taking the onslaught of criticism, there was a Left party faction that was desperately latching onto the remnants of its ‘patriotism’. Then there were others passing resolutions for India to buy arms from friendly communist countries like Hungary. And then there were those who were deathly quiet—by the time the India-China war was happening in 1962, the divisions within the CPI were sharpened.

One section of the Left became a fellow traveller of the Congress, hitching their political wagon to the grand old party. The other section — members of the so-called “pro-Chinese wing” of the CPI — saw this as a bourgeois betrayal. In reality, they were opposed to the war effort. But they were seen as traitors by the Indian government and were arrested for their beliefs, which the CPI condemned, but the intra-party factionalism continued and was one of the factors that contributed to the party’s split in 1964.

According to Hannan Mollah, the pro-China and traitor labels were “a calculated campaign of the bourgeois media and the bourgeois government” to blame the wing of the party that did not support India’s war effort against a communist ally. However, Mollah’s wing—the furthest Left wing of the party at the time— severed relations with China. “China criticised us and branded us as lackeys of imperialists,” Mollah said.


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The British ‘spy’ and the split

It was clear now that the CPI was fracturing – within a decade of it making a splash in Indian politics.

The final nail in the communist unity coffin is widely considered to be the leaks of SA Dange’s letters. On 7 March 1964, the English language Bombay-based weekly The Current claimed that during his time in prison in 1924, then CPI chief Dange had written letters to the Viceroy of India requesting a remission of his sentence in exchange for an arrangement that would have made Dange an informant to the British Raj.

“I am being given the punishment of four years’ rigourous imprisonment in order that those years may bring a salutory change in my attitude towards the King Emperor’s sovereignty in India. I beg to inform Your Excellency that those years are unnecessary, as I have never been positively disloyal towards His Majesty in my writings or speeches nor do I intend to do so in the future,” Dange wrote.

In response, the CPI on 13 March issued a statement labelling The Current’s leaks as a “fabrication” intended to malign Dange’s character and harm India’s communist movement, and laid out the lengthy periods Dange spent in jail under the Raj. Such a defence proved flimsy in the eyes of the dissidents who continued their agitation against the party leadership. Multiple meetings held in the subsequent weeks did little to prevent the impasse, neither did the CPI’s detailed clarifications about its position on the Congress government published in New Age.

According to CPI(M) member and former Rajya Sabha MP Nilotpal Basu, however, the fallout over the Dange letters are often taken “out of context” and the issue over the India-China war is “misconstrued” and do not supersede the bigger factors behind the split.

“The main organisational problem there in CPI was the lack of democratic functioning. Only after consolidating the fight on that charge was change possible, that eventually led to the split,” Basu said. “Aside from Dange’s letters, take into account the letter from the British foreign secretary characterising communists as the most uncompromising group against the Raj.”


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The culture wars

Right from its inception in 1925, the CPI harboured a duality towards the Congress. On one hand, the Congress had the numbers and the appeal. On the other, it was the bedrock of elitism. From not accepting the Quit India movement, on the grounds that the global struggle against Fascism was more important than national independence, to Nehru first dismissing the government in Kerala to later accepting the CPI as a party—the CPI had a troubled ideological relationship with the Congress until its final rupture.

“In the communist movement after independence, two trends emerged,” Hannan Mollah told ThePrint. “One was that the country is now free, the British have gone, and our national government is progressive, so we should support the government. The other trend was that now the bourgeoisie ruling class was in power, and foreign bourgeoisie was continuing their domination through the Commonwealth.”

The CPI saw Nehru as the symbol of an outdated and out-of-touch elitism, still shackled to the vestiges of imperialism. The Congress viewed the CPI with suspicion, especially after the party formed the government in Kerala.

The ideological conundrum reflected across films, plays, books, and cartoons.

“Sometimes I see the New Age and I am astonished at the manner in which it deals with problems,” remarked Nehru in a 1958 letter to EMS. “It seems to think, and that is to some extent a characteristic of the Communist Party, that by loud and rather vulgar shouting it can take the place of sense.”

The 1962 India-China war was the straw that broke the communist camel’s back. And the fallout wasn’t just political: The Left’s crisis of conscience spilt into films, novels and cartoons. Haqeeqat, one of India’s first nationalist films—and the first Bollywood film to be filmed in Ladakh—was made by openly Left-wing artists, and dedicated to Nehru. In the film, a Chinese soldier repeats “Chini-Hindu bhai bhai,” mocking the Indians. Later, an impassioned Balraj Sahni declares, “We won’t fire, but we’ll never forget China came here with bad intentions.”

The director of Haqeeqat, Chetan Anand, lyricist Kaifi Azmi, and cast members Balraj Sahni and Shaukat Kaifi all either leaned Left or were active members of the CPI. In the decades leading up to the 1962 war, they traced their roots to the Left’s cultural arms—the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

According to theatre actor, writer and managing editor of LeftWord Books Sudhanva Deshpande, the CPI’s influence reached the point where it was “hard to find a progressive writer” who wasn’t officially or unofficially affiliated.

The passionate anger expressed by New Age reporters and columnists in the late 1950s was also reflected in the editorial selection of cartoons, with the 1957 election period and the 1959 dismissal of the Kerala government providing a wealth of material to draw on. However, as the CPI experienced greater internal disagreements in the early 1960s, cartoons on local issues slowly disappeared from New Age pages with the CPI often republishing illustrations from overseas instead, in an attempted show of internationalism.

As seen in the cartoons below (selected from 1957-59), the death of democracy is a common running theme usually directed at the Nehru government or the Congress party-led alliance vying for political power in Kerala.

In 1957, when the CPI bagged a majority in Kerala, New Age was doing to Congress what Nehru would to Namboodiripad five years later — splatter mud on the party’s internal squabbles. In the cartoon below, the first Communist government took pride in ‘kicking out’ Panampilli Govinda Menon, former Congress CM of Travancore, who couldn’t divide the spoils among party members, eventually leading to a ‘cracked-up’ Congress and the President’s rule being imposed.

But these Leftist cultural organisations lost their place in the pan-India zeitgeist in the 1950s-60s and many of its members “migrated” to mainstream Hindi cinema. By 1962, Sudhanva Deshpande said, Indian artists on the left were torn between the two — love for their country and seeing China as harbingers of revolutionary change.

For CPI, this period perhaps most explicitly represented the precarious fine line between nuanced ideological diversity and chaotic confusion over the party’s official policy stance.


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‘What does the CPI stand for?’ 

The legacy of this upstanding and uncompromising group was being challenged by a deeper crisis of conscience: The Indian Left was trying to salvage the idea of the ‘Indian Communist’ and Communism. The split took place in the second week of April 1964 when 32 senior members staged a walk-out of a national council meeting in protest against Dange’s leadership and issued their own manifesto for a party that would soon become the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

“The old programme was class collaboration and not going for mass struggle. We rejected all that and formulated our own programme in 1964,” Mollah said.

The CPI’s subsequent statements and New Age coverage were acerbic to the 32 defectors — headlines such as “History will not forgive them” and labels like “disruptors” that were previously reserved for opponents like the Nehru government in 1957-59 were now used against fellow communists.

The new CPI(M) became the de facto communist party in India, with subsequent electoral victories in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. But the internal conversations and doctrinal debates continued—and those who thought the CPI(M) wasn’t Left enough eventually formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

But the question Nehru posed 64 years ago still rankles: What does the Communist Party of India stand for?

New Age republishes a cartoon from the Hindusthan Standard satirising the imposing of President’s Rule in August 1959 | Photo: Raghav Bikhchandani

Today, the communist wing in India is still demarcated on ideological lines. Its electoral politics forced them to confront the realities of caste and identity in their electoral strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal. Even in the face of existential threats from parties like the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, though, the two Left parties haven’t been able to reunite.

Hannan Mollah told ThePrint that while the communist wing is broadly united, an ideological merger still would not be possible in India today. “We are going for electoral adjustment in many places, but not an alliance,” he said.

Saying the Left doesn’t have fundamental fractures but major differences, Nilotpal Basu told ThePrint that the Left still does have the space today to have a common approach on issues they agree upon.  “There’s a greater degree of cooperation between Left forces, sometimes differences prevail, but overall different Left groups have a common approach,” he said.

Supporting Hannan Mollah’s point about electoral adjustment, Basu said that when it comes to the issues of the working class, the Left will continue carrying out joint campaigns. “That kind of approach is distinctly different from other non-Left parties,” he said. “With Left parties, it is something more proximate — a common approach.”

If electoral results are anything to go by, there has been a Red sunset in most of India.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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