By: Dr. Malem Ningthouja
Chairperson, Campaign for Peace and Democracy (Manipur)
The Russian October Revolution of 1917 was an epoch-making event in the history of mankind. I am sure most of the comrades who are speaking on this occasion to commemorate the centennial program touch upon the significance of the event. I shall not go further into the details.
But let me quote the international significance of the event as elaborately stated by J.V. Stalin, in 1927, on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927. Stalin, in his work entitled The International Character of the October Revolution termed the revolution “a revolution of an international character towards a new world order.” According to him, it was a “source of the profound sympathy which the oppressed classes in all countries entertain… as a pledge of their own emancipation… (it) has shaken imperialism not only in the centres of its domination, not only in the metropolises. It has also struck at the rear of imperialism, its periphery, having undermined the rule of imperialism in the colonial and dependent countries.”
In the words of the Indian historian Prof Amar Farooqui, “The experience of the October Revolution in Russia and the excitement over the revolutionary initiatives of the Bolsheviks, attracted an increasing number of activists to socialist ideas and communism. … (it) was of momentous significance for the oppressed peoples of the world. It inspired new revolutionary movements; radicalized people’s struggles; and had a profound impact on national liberation movements. Further, it made Marxism–Leninism a potent ideological force internationally.”
My focus, today, is to provide with a brief overview of the direct impact of the October Revolution on the then British India in the first two decades and the indirect impact, several decades later, on the then princely state of Manipur. Before going into this, it is worth pointing out that British India was directly ruled upon by the British. On the contrary, there were several princely states in the Indian subcontinent that were indirectly ruled upon through the respective monarchs and feudal lords. Due to uneven process of development, means of transport, communication, exchange of ideas of political organization; there was no uniform standard inflow of information and spread of political ideas across the subcontinent. The princely states and tribal communities in what today constitute the Northeast India predominantly lived in the confines of their respective world. As a result, when seen from a holistic overview, the direct or indirect impact of the October Revolution across different regions in the subcontinent differed in time, space, magnitude and implications.
Let me now present the overview in two sub-sections; (a) Direct Impact of October Revolution on British India, and (b) Indirect Impact on Manipur in different time.
Direct Impact of October Revolution in British India
In the immediate decade after 1917, the Russian Revolution was a major source of inspiration to many Indian nationalists, in British India who were spearheading struggles to liberate from the British colonial rule. The commitment of the Bolsheviks to national self-determination, the grant of independence to Finland, Declaration of the Rights of People of Russia (15 November 1917), Lenin’s thesis on National and the Colonial Question 1920, the call for an end to imperialist war and for peace, and the principle of national liberation and social emancipations; all these seemed to have produced an unprecedented model that was coveted by many who had wanted to establish a social system that would be freed from various forms of external and internal subjugation, oppression and exploitation. What was most attractive to the nationalists across different political strands seemed to be the Soviet attack on imperialism.
Many Indian nationalists hailed the Soviet hostility to imperialism in general and British rule in particular. It is being said that a vast chunk of nationalists had become frustrated with both the British rule and the pre-existing forms of pessimistic resistance and mediocratic appeals under the leadership of the Indian ‘national’ bourgeoisie. The latter are being charged for alleged co-option with the colonial rulers. The disgruntled sections found more appealing to the model of October revolution, soviet structure revolutionary government or communist thought. Objectively, however, those who believed in communism were few in number and they were targeted by the State. They had to work along with others on the path to people’s democratic revolution. What then became apparent was a broader course of anti-colonial resistance comprising various strands of ideological positions and political stands, which more or less drew inspirations from the October Revolution. These were reflected in literary expressions, propaganda works and organization.
In literary expressions, the Russian Revolution was hailed high by many prominent poets such as Rabindranath Tagore and Iqbal. Bal Gangadhar Tilak defended Lenin in his journal Kesari (29 January 1918) and denounced British propaganda. Subramania Bharati composed an ode entitled New Russia as a mark of eulogizing the revolution. Bombay Chronicle and Modern Review followed the same trend. Several Hindi and English booklets and biographical accounts were published in praise of Lenin and the Russian Revolution and communist literatures and circulated. The first communist weekly in India, entitled, Socialists, began printed from Bombay in 1922. Political statements and activities of the Russian communists were carefully followed in literary expressions.
In organization and activity, the Russian Revolution made a militant and popular impact on the pre-existing anti-colonial struggle. It acted as a morale booster to the revolutionaries amongst the Indian emigres and within British India. First, among the emigres there were individuals who were already influenced by socialist ideas prevalent in Europe and labour movement. The Russian Revolution added to their courage, hope and possibilities of building up force. To cite few examples, Naren Bhattacharji who came into contact with the Bolshevik cadre, joined with others and founded a Communist Party in Mexico in 1919. He attended the Second Congress of the Communist International held in Russia in 1920. On the other hand, M.N. Roy, Abani Mukherji and some muhajirs founded Communist Party of India in Tashkent in 1920. Many Indians communist cadres also joined the Communist University in Russia for training in ideology and organisation. In 1922, a Berlin group of communists headed by Virendranath Chattopadhyay, Bhupendranath Dutt and Barkatullah formed Indian Independence Party in Berlin. An important section of Ghadarites abroad and in India were attracted to communist movement and became martyrs.
Organizationally, in British India, a qualitative change became evident in trade union activism. Many nationalist leaders realized the importance of politically mobilizing the working people in the organized and semi-organized sectors. They strengthened trade unionism, worker’s strike and incorporated socialist ideas, if not communism by the communist section. It is in this sector that the communists, liberal socialists and other nationalists had developed a broader understanding of organizing certain common ‘national’ front. The objective was to interlink worker’s movement with anti-colonial struggle. They cannot fully rely on uncoordinated and sectarian approach by different working peoples. To strengthen the mass base of resistance, as a result, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in 1920. This union became a contested platform where the congress led by the ‘national’ bourgeoisie and the communist would try to exert their maximum influence along ideological line. Despite the inner struggle along ideological line, the common platform seemed to have served the respective interest. Since about 1923 the communists became active in the labour movements in Bombay, Kanpur and Calcutta. The Labour Kishan Party (of labour and peasant) was formed in 1923.
Despite repressions by the authority for their ideology, the communists were able to organize into better shape along the framework of certain broader organization structure. By the end of 1922, several communist groups were able to establish secret links in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Lahore. An open Indian Communist Conference, held in Kanpur in December 1925, formally founded the Communist Party of India. Article One of the Constitution of the Communist Party of India, clearly mentions the objectives of the party. The Article, which fall on the line of the Bolshevik party, reads, “The establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ republic based on the socialisation of the means of production and distribution, by the liberation of India from British imperialist domination.” This substantiates the direct influence of the October Revolution.
Between 1925 and 1927, the party worked with broader fronts of worker and peasant parties to serve as legal cover. Their influence grew rapidly among the Bombay textile workers from 1926 onwards. In the meanwhile, several peasant and worker fronts/ parties were set up in Bengal, Punjab, and Bombay. May first began to be celebrated as Labour Day from 1927 onwards in Bombay. It became celebrated widely in other parts of British India. In due course of time, communist activities expanded from the workers of Bombay to the jute workers of Bengal and the railway employees of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The communists temporarily moved away the AITUC to run a parallel radical trade union christened as All India Red Trade Union Congress, from 1931 onwards. However, it could not function due to repression and arrest of the leaders and had to merge with AITUC in 1935.
Mentioned may also be made of the charismatic Indian Socialist revolutionary figure such as Bhagat Singh, whose individual heroism and martyrdom at young age had made him a legendary figure today. He was a member of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) and was instrumental in establishing Naojawan Bharat Sabha in 1926. The objective of the Sabha to achieve “a completely independent Republic of Workers and Peasants in India,” suggested their inclination towards the revolutionary ideals of the Soviet. The HRA, which was rechristened as Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in August-September 1928, could not survive through the 1930s due to heavy repression. It failed to revive and became extinct forever. But the commitment of the cadres towards communist revolution expressed in their literary works, their forms of democratic struggles in the jail, and revolutionary messages noted down in the prison note books and correspondence letters exemplify the influences of the October Revolution and Soviet initiatives in 1920s.
Indirect Impact on Manipur in different time
The impact of the October Revolution in Russia was not immediately felt in the princely state of Manipur. Manipur, then, was ruled by the combined forces of British authority and feudal monarchy. Although there had been sporadic resistances to feudal excesses and colonial oppressions, the influence of communism manifested in mass democratic movement began to take organizational shape only after the end of the Second World War. So, there was a gape in time and the magnitude of impact.
Communism is believed to be introduced into Manipur by comrade Hijam Irabot. Originally a destitute orphan, in the later stage of his youth he enjoyed feudal prerogatives due to matrimonial relation with the ruling monarch. However, he took to a reformist course directed against feudalism. He began his political career as a social reformer in 1934. He played important roles in resisting feudal oppressions and colonial exploitations. He was arrested several times and exiled for political dissent and democratic stands. While his frustration with the system was growing, in 1942 he became attracted to communism while he lived with Bengalese communists in Sylhet Jail (now in Bangladesh). After that he spent several years in Assam, Bengal and Sylhet, where he took part in communist activities among peasants, youths and students. He was introduced to the Communist Party of India. He attended the party’s first and second congresses in 1943 and 1948 and became a member of the party. He fought election to the Assam Provincial Legislatures Assembly in 1946 and the Manipur General Assembly in 1948.
The political conditions prevalent in Manipur was not favorable to him. He was regarded a threat to the bourgeoise democratic system that was established after the independence in 1947. He was also a suspect in the eyes of the rulers of the Dominion of India who had planned to annex Manipur and other Northeast regions for geo-strategic regions. When popular resistance to the Couplan plan of creating a Purbanchal State turned into a violent scuffle, he was falsely implicated and arrest warrant was issued against him. To escape arrest, he went into underground and later on constituted an underground communist front on 29 October 1948. The party adopted the BT Ranadive (CPI) line of armed insurrection and began sporadic guerilla armed insurrection. In Burma, he established contacts with different communist armed groups towards constituting a common united front. However, he died on the way to Manipur, in the jungle, due to tropical fever and infection on 26th September, 1951. In the meanwhile, all other leaders were arrested and the important ones were jailed for several years in the jails outside Manipur. When a general amnesty was announced, the rest became over ground, joined parliamentary lines and became renegades. The first phase of communist insurrection, thus, came to an abrupt end.
In the adjoining Naga Hills and Tuensang Areas there were Nagas under the leadership of AZ Phizo, under the banner of Naga National Council, fighting for independence from India. They were somewhat inspired by Chinese communism but soon, due to their full adherence to Christianity and because of their close connection with churches in Europe, they adopted Christian Democracy as the guiding principle of advocating ethno-nationalism. There was a long gape in the growth of a second generation of youth who would adhere to socialism in Manipur. But in 1964 a new generation of youth who believed in proposed national democratic revolution of Manipur was formed. But they devoted more in organizing socialist study circle and mass organization among the educated youths. While they remained inactive politically and militarily for some years, in the late 1970s, different groups of youths who believed in armed ‘national democratic revolution’ formed three different parties. They subscribed to Marxists Leninist Maoist thought and began to advocate national liberation and social emancipation. Many of them were reportedly influenced by the principle of New Democracy, national liberation movement in Vietnam, armed resistance movements in Burma and elsewhere.
To what extent these claims of ideological stand along New Democracy are true can be discussed seriously. Their achievements, weakness, defeats and failures can be discussed separately. Instead of going further, it may be summed up with the observation that the October Revolution did not have immediate impact on Manipur in its historical time of the first two decades. However, after several decades, there were trickled down inspirations that came indirectly in different periods of time that came through inspirations generated as a result of information about revolutionary movements and people’s democracy in various Asian countries that were more or less a continuation of the revolutionary legacy of the October Revolution.
The contemporary era of domination and plunder by imperialism that functions through collaboration of the monopoly finance capital with subordinate regional bourgeoisie and local reactions who are dependent on the share of imperialist loots is marked by subjugation, oppression, instabilities, insecurities, unrests and destructions in various forms across the globe. The historical context of 1910s that necessitated revolutionary initiatives towards achieving world peace vis-à-vis imperialist wars, social equality and justice, national liberation and social emancipation remained unchanged in the first two decades of the 21st century. The struggle to achieve People’s Democratic Revolution is still relevant in the advanced countries, underdeveloped countries and oppressed regions. Stalin rightly pointed out, “Capitalism may become partly stabilized, it may rationalize its production, turn over the administration of the country to fascism, temporarily hold down the working class; but it will never recover the “tranquility,” the “assurance,” the “equilibrium” and the “stability” that it flaunted before; for the crisis of world capitalism has reached the stage of development when the flames of revolution must inevitably break out, now in the centers of imperialism, now in the periphery, reducing to naught the capitalist patch-work and daily bringing nearer the fall of capitalism.” It is high time that we celebrate the centennial of the October Revolution not merely for the symbolic triumph of the Soviet in 1917 but for paving the way to building a united front of the revolutionary forces to defeat imperialism, its fascist variations and local reactions.
Long live the national democratic struggle of the Filipino peoples against imperialist plunders and local reactions
Long live people’s democratic movement
(This paper was presented on behalf of Malem by Windel Farag-ey Bolinget of Cordillera People’s Alliance, at University of the Philippines, College of Law, Manila, Philippines on the occasion of the Centenary of the Great October Revolution on May 5 and May 6, 2017)