Inside India #26 – Red India: Communism on the subcontinent

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

India is the world’s largest democracy and has been since 1947 when it achieved Independence following three centuries of British rule. Yet, such are the differences between north, south, east, and west – in culture, language, local history, cuisine, customs – that the country has often been described as a collection of nations rather than a unified whole. 

With such immense variation, India has proved fertile soil for all manner of political ideologies to take root and flourish. 

Communism as a political force arrived on the subcontinent following the Russian Revolution, at a time when a group of prominent Indians – including the likes of Bipin Chandra Pal and Bal Gangadhar Tilak – were openly expressing admiration for the teachings of Lenin. Several made the journey to Moscow to meet the man himself, returning inspired by the Russian revolutionary’s grand vision for an egalitarian utopia run by, and for, the masses.

Picture attribution: David Wilmot, CC 2.0

In its early years, the transplanted ideology met with strident opposition from the authorities of the Raj, wary of the potential for communist agitators to attach themselves to the growing Independence movement. The newspapers were soon full of sensational conspiracy theories, with local communists accused of undermining British sovereignty in India. Little surprise then that the martinets of empire responded by prohibiting communist activity across the subcontinent, clamping down on dissenters with an iron fist. 

Despite this, in 1925, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was established followingthe first national communist conference held in Cawnpore, with S.V. Ghate elected as the party’s first General Secretary.

Over the next decade, the movement grew cautiously in the country’s principal urban centres such as Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. By the 1940s, communism as a mainstream alternative ideology had infiltrated national party politics, sprouting several offshoots, including the Congress Socialist Party, and a volatile group that named itself The League Against Gandhism, a coterie of radicals who shared Gandhi’s goal of independence, but disagreed with his non-violent tactics and compromise politics. In 1964, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – originating in the state of Kerala – splintered off from the CPI.

In the decades following Independence, the movement struggled to maintain its identity, sometimes veering towards to the right, sometimes to the hard left. This confusion, combined with a lack of cohesive national leadership, led to a waning of the socialist brand. By the 1990s, communism in India was confined to a few states – such as West Bengal and Kerala – with little national influence. 

Looking back, most commentators now believe that the communist experiment failed partly because of India’s complex societal structure and partly because of the association of the movement with violence, an association that continues to this day. 

The Naxalite–Maoist insurgencyis an ongoing conflictbetween Maoist groups known as Naxalites – or Naxals – and the Indian government. The insurgency started after the 2004 formation of the CPI-Maoists – a group of rebel communists operating in what is known as the Red Corridor, a region in the eastern, central, and the southern parts of India.

The conflict has seen hundreds killed annually in clashes between the CPI-Maoists and the government. For their part, the Naxalites claim they are fighting a ‘people’s war’.

The insurgency gained international media attention after a 2013 attack in the Darbha Valleyin the state of Chhattisgarh that resulted in the deaths of twenty-four Indian National Congress leaders. All forms of Naxalite organisations have since been declared as terrorist organizations by the Indian government.

Today, many believe that communism has missed its window in India. The failure to convert Lenin’s vision of a socialist state into a form acceptable to the subcontinental masses suggests that it is unlikely that any of the major communist parties of India will ever be elected to helm the nation. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

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