International communists tried to destabilise British India

Issue date: 18 October 2010


Ali Kocho-Williams The Communist International (Comintern) was involved in promoting the struggle for Indian independence in the 1920s and '30s, including via the use of force, according to new evidence uncovered by a historian from the University of the West of England. Dr Alastair Kocho-Williams has just returned from archives in Moscow, Delhi, Amsterdam, and the UK where he spent several months delving into communist party and state archives.

“There are large holdings of papers in the Indian State Archives that are well indexed and include material that is not duplicated in London,” Alastair said. “Some of the papers are now very brittle and fragile. The remaining archives of the Communist Party of India are based in Jawarlahal Nehru University in New Delhi, and in the Comintern Archives in Moscow, with British Government documents in London and the Communist Party of Great Britain archives in Manchester. The Indian Communist Party was small between the first and second World Wars, and illegal in India until 1941, but adhered to a strict sense of Bolshevik discipline and methods.

“Communist moves to expand influence in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s have received a great deal of coverage, but during this period the Comintern was also focussing efforts on destabilising India, which it regarded as the 'back door' to the British Empire, and this deserves a greater focus,” he continued.

“I wanted to find out more about this challenge to British India from the Comintern and British reactions to it. It seems that for the Comintern, India was regarded as a good focus for anti-British revolt to take hold, and there were hopes that unrest might then spread to other British colonies. The realities and perceptions of Bolshevik intrigue and the potential for a communist led revolution in India was clearly of great concern to the Government of India and the British Government in London.

“Documents I examined included communist party papers, the files of the Comintern, propaganda, materials of the League Against Imperialism and British documents detailing attempts to limit and control the communist movement in India. Amongst these were transcripts of a series of communist conspiracy trials held in the 1920s and '30s in Peshawar, Cawnpore and Meerut. The people on trial included individuals from an international propaganda network organized from Europe under the auspices of the Comintern by the Bengali revolutionary MN Roy, and included two members of the British Communist Party.

“The Comintern was an international federation of communist parties, aimed at furthering world-wide revolution. It was founded in Moscow in 1919 and dominated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In India, communists modelled themselves on Russian revolutionaries and their methods included the dissemination of Marxist propaganda, agitation within the trade union movement and the Indian National Congress, and potential armed insurrection. I found from archive material that the Indian Communist Party was far from indigenous, particularly in its early years many of its main players were émigrés, who spent little or no time in India. It is also of note that the Communist Party of Great Britain played a role, both through the communist Anglo-Indian MP for Battersea, Saklatvala, and through direct assistance to communists in India, particularly in the 1930s when the Comintern charged it with the direction of the Indian communist movement.

“My research offers a new way of thinking about the role of the Comintern in the struggle for Indian independence. It was one of a number of voices in the independence movement, and clearly one that caused great concern for the British. However it is also clear that the Comintern was not as successful in India as it hoped, or at times believed, and that the Russian model for revolution was not well adapted to the situation and could not be transplanted.”

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