Communist memories


FRONTLINE, Volume 28 - Issue 25 :: Dec. 03-16, 2011
Extracts from interviews of India's first-generation Communist leaders throwing light on some turning points in the history of Indian communism.

 Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister at his office in Writers' Buildings in Kolkata.

LEADERS of the communist movement in India have been prolific writers. P.C. Joshi, one of the ablest pamphleteers the country has known, was general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the 1940s, right up to the Second Congress in Calcutta in 1948, when B.T. Ranadive took over. Unfortunately, neither of them wrote memoirs, as E.M.S. Namboodiripad did ( How I Became a Communist, Chinta Publishers, Trivandrum, 1976; and Reminiscences of an Indian Communist; National Book Centre, New Delhi, 1987). A.K. Gopalan wrote In the Cause of the People: Reminiscences (Orient Longman, 1973). Nor must one forget Muzaffar Ahmad's Myself and the Communist Party of India 1920-1929 (National Book Agency Pvt. Ltd, Calcutta, 1970) and P. Sundarayya's Telangana People's Struggle and Its Lessons published by Desraj Chadha on behalf of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Calcutta in 1972. It is a most informative book of 592 pages but without an index. A reprint is called for. The CPI leader N.K. Krishnan wrote Testament of Faith…: Memoirs of a Communist (New Delhi Publishing House, 1990). He twice mentions P.N. Haksar as a “member of the Communist group” and “a fellow Communist” in Britain; pages 58 and 60). In the eyes of some, Mohit Sen was a lapsed Communist; but no serious student of the communist movement in India can neglect his memoir A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist (Rupa & Co., 2003).

Nor should one neglect that enormous storehouse of resource for scholarship, the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) in New Delhi. This writer would like to express his enormous gratitude to the institution and its unfailingly helpful officials. What follows is a mere glimpse of its rich Oral History programme. Two cautions are in order. One must consult the whole record; under the rules, readers are only allowed copies of a part. Secondly, a lot depends on the quality and relevance of the question. No answer can be more intelligent than the question that elicits it.

There are some crucial episodes in the record of Indian communism on which much has been written – the Communists' split with the Congress Socialist Party; the CPI's stand on the Second World War; the second party congress in 1948; evolution of the tactical line; the leaders' historic meeting with Joseph Stalin in Moscow; the Telangana struggle and the Andhra Thesis.


It is on these episodes that, one hopes, the extracts throw some light. The leaders spoke with candour. To be sure a lot happened thereafter, culminating in the party's split in 1964. If I begin with the prince among them all, in a manner of speaking, it is because Jyoti Basu was one of the most level-headed and urbane men in our public life with whom it was easy to interact, with much pleasure and profit always. On behalf of the NMML, Shikha Mukherjee and Usha Prasad interviewed Jyoti Basu at Kolkata on December 18, 2001. His recollections of the past are interesting. More so, his views on recent events:

“The Government of India did not adopt proper policy in regard to giving autonomy and more powers to the Kashmiris. So they became little by little more alienated from India. At that time the rise of the Jana Sangh and the Hindu elements also had their impact. Earlier also when these powers were taken away, the young Kashmiris became pro-Pakistan, anti-India. Now there are various groups. What some people like Sheikh Abdullah wanted was not to join Pakistan, but independent Kashmir. I once asked Sheikh Abdullah after he was released and became the Chief Minister again: Why, how would you deal with a small State like that? Some arguments he gave me: Why? If I had an independent Kashmir, Pakistan would support me, America and India would support me. Anyway he later on was with India. … We cannot hand over Kashmir to Pakistan; that is clear as anything. We cannot make Kashmir an independent State, but we stick today to what we have been saying. It is more than ever necessary to give them absolute autonomy and not only autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, but within Kashmir autonomy should be given to the Jammu part and the other part also. That is how we can get back the confidence of the people, Muslims particularly, in Kashmir. They have been alienated; there is no doubt about that. But the way to do [that] is to really look after their economic interest and probably more than that. At the moment we have to politically satisfy them not only with Article 370, which the present government wants to withdraw, but also the other powers, which they had even during Jawaharlal Nehru's time, should be given back to them. Some of them have been taken away. Then if they want their own Supreme Court or if they want anything, except defence and foreign policy, it should be given to them but, of course, financial help must be rendered from the Government of India. That is how you can get the confidence of the people.

Mukherjee: How can you put an end to the militancy?

Basu: This is to be done both politically and administratively. Army and police operation are necessary, but more than that this, politics, which I am talking, is necessary.”

He was all for a political solution.
It was not just once that he was invited to become Prime Minister. The full account bears quotation in extenso. “You see, when the United Front was there, we got a majority and the Congress said that it would support us so as to keep the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] at bay. So we got together, but who would be the Prime Minister? V.P. Singh would be the best person, but he was ill. So they all, 12 parties, said: You must be the Prime Minister. Why did they say it? It was not because I am God's son, but because, as you said, I have got experience of running a United Front government and the Left Front government. That is why they thought that our party should join the 12-parties government, and I should become the Prime Minister.

“Then what happened was that because before the elections, we had no common programme although we were fighting together against the Congress. We said in the election meetings – I had spoken in so many election meetings: We shall help to form a government, but we will not be a part of it. (That had been our view.) Now since you are requesting 12 parties, including CPI, whose representative Indrajit Gupta became the Home Minister, we have to call a meeting of the central committee. That is the way we function; it is a democratic functioning. So we called a meeting of the central committee on their request: This new situation has arisen and so we have to have a programme that they want us to enter the government and I become the Prime Minister. In the voting there was a division. It was a serious meeting and there was a division. I think by 8 or 10 votes, we lost – our general secretary and I were in the minority. We thought politically it would be excellent thing and the right thing to do to join this government and head it, try to lead it. Even though it may be for few months, it would be politically advantageous. (I am not going into all the arguments.) But the others, the majority thought otherwise that it would be a great risk for us to join with these people, but we said: Already we had worked out Common Minimum Programme for West Bengal. Now we will have a Common Minimum Programme at the Centre. We said: As people saw in West Bengal United Front government, similarly, on an all-India's scale it will help our party, it will help the Left forces, the democratic forces. This was our argument. Others said: Nothing can be done with leading the government but we can support 12 of them. Some of them, that is true also, were very much against our policies like the then Finance Minister, he was very much against our policy, but our argument was: In the Centre, the Prime Minister is unlike what we have in West Bengal, in Kerala. In the Centre the Prime Minister wields a lot of influence and we can for the time being influence them. Other partners [said], you see the World Bank is there; the IMF [International Monetary Fund] is there; they are blindly accepting all that advice given to them, which we shall not do. The people will have a new experience. Within these limitations so many things could be done. Then if we are thrown out and we shall leave a new experience for the people cannot last for five years. The Congress is supporting. When they will withdraw support, people will judge who is to blame. If it breaks up, then we can leave something behind for the people. As I said, this is how people will understand with whom lies the responsibility. But this argument was not accepted by the majority. So we went back and reported that. But they said: The President is waiting. We have to tell him the name of the Prime Minister. No, once again, you please call your meeting. I said: Eight people have left the meeting already, but we know for whom they have voted.

“So we called a meeting second time. This time also we failed. One or two changes were there, but we failed, majority was there for not participating and we, who were for participating, were in minority. Among the comrades of West Bengal there was division also. Four or five of us were for participating and some others were against participating. So again we went back and reported what had happened. …

“Once M.J. Akbar of Asian Age asked me: What do you feel personally? I said – this I have not said any time publicly in my life about party differences though I have differed with my party on many occasions: We the Communists don't talk that way, but on this decision of the majority, I think it was a historic blunder, because history does not give such opportunities to the Communists. Knowing who I am, what I am, my belief in Marxism, the 12 parties are asking me to become the Prime Minister; we should accept it. Let people go through the experience. It will be of great help to the people and us. So he wrote all that in Asian Age.

“When 11 non-Communist parties, V.P. Singh and others, asked the CPI(M) – the CPI had decided to join the government – to join the government with me as the Prime Minister, it would be the correct step. I said: In Parliament [ sic] democracy, never in the world has such a situation arisen. Again I say, this is a historic blunder. Historic, why, because such opportunity does not come, history does not present you with such opportunities. But anyhow that was that….

Prasad: Were you offered prime ministership earlier too?

Basu: I cannot remember; there was a crisis in the Congress in 1990. For some work, I had gone to Delhi. Then the present Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha, came to see me – I was staying in 2, Circular Road. He said: As you know there is a crisis in the Congress. But a government has to be formed, and you head it. I said: How suddenly I become the Prime Minister! We have a small number of people there in Parliament. Anyhow it is not just possible. There is no question of discussing such a thing. So he left and then came our Chander [sic] Shekhar – he was a good friend of mine and I used to meet him earlier also – who he said: You become the Prime Minister, we will all be there to help you. I said: I told your friend (Yashwant was with Chander Shekhar at that time, later he was with the BJP). Then he said: Then I become. I said: Very good. You have all my support, but how long will you last? How many people do you have ? …

Mukherjee: What is that makes a coalition stick together?

Basu: Some minimum understanding. We know where we differ. We do not bring up all those differences when we draw up our programme, like the Common Minimum Programme also. Of course, many things are there with which the Finance Minister and others disagree.

Mukherjee: Why did the United Front experiments at the Centre not work when the Opposition minus the BJP had a role to play? Of course, the BJP coalition is working.
Basu: No, this is a different thing. The BJP coalition is working because all these States' parties and groups want to become Ministers. We cannot form such a coalition. According to us, if there is no minimum understanding sincerely pursued, we should not have a government, but the BJP does not believe in any principles or policies, it wants to rule, and Hindutva and all this business are there; they are guided by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad].”

Another opportunity arose in 1999. “When lately the President had asked the BJP to take a vote, it lost by one vote. Then we wanted to present an alternative. It could not be like the other time. That alternative could only be the Congress because that was the main non-communal opposition party. We, ‘our party' do make a difference between the BJP and the Congress. Many communal-minded people may be there in the Congress, but it is a non-communal party. It has become very, very important today but it was not that important in those days. It has become important with the rise of the BJP. So when we were discussing in Delhi, Mulayam Singh said: I cannot support the Congress government. Then I asked him: Why did you vote against the BJP? He said: The alternative is you. (It is ridiculous, that I become the Prime Minister.) I said: Why should the Congress accept me? Those days are over, no more there.

“Then Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and others came to my house and said: We shall form a government of our own. I asked: How can you form a government of your own, because you have only 120 or 125 MPs. You cannot. (They also had no arguments.) The Left, we, shall support you, we do not want to become Minister or anything, but unless you make an offer to other parties to form a coalition government why should they support you? The Congress also made the mistake. They would not have a coalition government. So we said: As far as the Left is concerned, we do not want to become Ministers; we want to support the government against the BJP. The BJP should not come back. But if you do not do that, then neither the Congress nor you can form a government.

“Now Jayalalitha and Lalu Prasad went to Sonia Gandhi and told her about this alternative, with me as the Prime Minister. Earlier I said: I am not well and all that, why should I take the blame, I will keep quiet. You go to her. Then Sonia Gandhi rang me up and said the same thing. My working committee has already taken a decision, either we form the government or nothing happens. We cannot support the alternative suggested. I said: Very good. Then I do not know why you people voted against the BJP because the BJP is now saying rightly that they (the Opposition) are so irresponsible that they threw us out but could not form an alternative government. They got the political advantage. So this is the story of that event. People in Delhi and not only Mulayam Singh, even the RSP [Revolutionary Socialist Party] and the Forward Bloc with one or two MPs, also opposed and they could not give me the reason why they voted against the BJP, but then opposed the Congress forming a government.”


Jyoti Basu was critical of Stalin's Soviet Union, where dissent was stifled. “In 1962 I went to the Soviet Union along with Bhupesh Gupta and Govinda Menon. There we had raised a question in our National Council – it was not divided then in 1962: Why is it that the Soviet Union – Khrushchev was in power then – is asking the Albanian people to get rid of the Albanian communist government? What right has it to do that? So the decision was taken that three of us should go and talk to Suslov, their topmost theoretician, and Ponomariov, their topmost historian. So we met them for about three or four hours and then amongst many other things – I am not going into that – we asked them about Albanian issue. So Suslov and Ponomariov said: You do not know the kind of propaganda they are doing against us in Albania, although Communist Party rule is there. I said: But that is for the people of Albania to decide; you can tell them what Soviet Union wants to say. How can you ask the people to overthrow a government from outside? We got no satisfactory reply from Suslov and Ponomariov.”


His contempt for the BJP was not concealed.

“Prasad: Before the demolition of Babri Masjid, when there was the rath yatra, you were trying to stop it and then Lalu Prasad stopped it.

Basu: Yes, V.P. Singh asked me to go and see L.K. Advani. Once I went to his house and another time to somebody else's place to meet him. We had food together and then had discussions. But I could not convince him. He was talking about the Moghul days as to how some of them destroyed our temples, this and that. I said: But was it right what they did whoever did it? He said: There is no question about destroying anything. Mine is a peaceful Yatra. I will go from one end of India to the other end and this is my route. But I said: I hear, in the rath you have Ram's photograph. Has he become your party member? You have your election symbol also in the rath. He said: Yes, what is wrong there? But it will be a peaceful rath yatra. I reported back to V.P. Singh: I could not convince him; he is going through his programme. Then he said that he would have to be arrested. That was almost the break-up of the Janata government. But Advani will pass through West Bengal, Purulia district. V.P. Singh told me: You don't arrest him. He will end his rath yatra in Patna. So I had asked Lalu Prasad Yadav – he was the Chief Minister at that time – to arrest him. So this is what happened. Then you know later on, how thousands of people were killed.” (excerpts)

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