Open Essay

The Echo of the Russian Revolution in India

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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An October in Memory

THE ‘TEN DAYS that Shook the World’—to repeat the title of John Reed’s gripping account of the October Revolution—also changed India. Jawaharlal Nehru’s admiration for the Soviet Union as “A New Civilisation” (without the question mark that Sidney and Beatrice Webb used to start with) shaped official India’s economic thinking even before PC Mahalanobis was inducted to replicate Soviet state planning. Nehru and his successors have concentrated as much power in the prime minister’s office and person as the Kremlin ever enjoyed.

None of this was apparent in early 1917 when starving Russians rose in righteous wrath against Romanov absolutism. Many stories are told of the oppressive conditions against which they revolted. In one a grand duchess emerging from a ball in the small hours of the morning to find her coachman frozen dead in his seat is only worried about her horses. The bunch of inexperienced but well-meaning democratic politicians who assumed office after the initial revolution didn’t last long.

The green fields touched with autumnal yellow, brown and red sloping away on either side of the Danube and Mainz rivers as I write this tells that story. This heartland of Europe bristled with the Kaiser’s troops and resonated to the rumble of tanks a hundred years ago. Vladimir Lenin’s special train also hurtled through this then war-torn landscape. Determined to defend their devastated country against a feared Russian invasion, the Germans devised a cunning plan to plunge Russia into, as they hoped, eternal chaos. Lenin was their secret weapon. The exiled Bolshevik leader had declared war on the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and split it on ideological lines. He was desperate to return home, take charge and transform the First World War into a proletarian revolution that would abolish capitalism throughout Europe and replace it with socialism.

Return seemed impossible for Britain had closed all the routes to Russia. Nadezhda Krupskaya, whom Lenin had married while serving a three-year sentence for sedition in Shushnenskoye, vetoed his plan to travel in disguise in a sleeper train because he had a habit of ranting against his political enemies in his sleep. But the Germans were not thwarted. In Winston Churchill’s dramatic prose they rescued Lenin from where he was languishing and ‘transported him in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia’. Lenin imposed conditions for the undertaking. His railway carriage had to be insulated from all contact. Germany wasn’t allowed to pay for 32 other repatriated Bolsheviks. But the plan worked and the special train reached a wounded and bleeding Russia where it disgorged the apostle of revolution who had only three simple words on his lips— “Peace, Bread, Land”. More to the point, Lenin also demanded “All powers to the Soviets.”

The exiled Bolshevik leader had declared war on the Menshevik faction. He was desperate to return home, take charge and transform the First World War into a proletarian revolution that would abolish capitalism throughout Europe and replace it with socialism

Indian history provides no exact parallel although Nehru possibly glimpsed one in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s return from South Africa. He compared Gandhi with Lenin who hijacked a social democratic revolution by seizing power on November 8th,1917 and paved the way for Stalin’s murderous orgies. “Almost at the same time as the October Revolution led by the great Lenin, we in India began a new phase in our struggle for freedom” Nehru exulted. “Our people for many years were engaged in this struggle with courage and patience. And although under the leadership of Gandhi we followed another path, we were influenced by the example of Lenin.”

Were the two events connected? Or was the timing mere coincidence? After all, Britain’s Balfour Declaration promising Jews a national homeland in Palestine was also published the day after Lenin’s coup. Nehru’s “we” demands exploration too. It remains a moot point how many Indians even knew of developments in Europe, leave alone feeling their influence. Belonging to the Westernised haute bourgeoisie, Nehru followed European events closely. He instinctively resented the aristocracy, and shed no tears when the Romanovs were murdered.

Being more respectful of traditional hierarchies, India’s culturally indigenous peasantry would probably have been more sympathetic to Russia’s ancien regime had they known anything of the tumultuous events in St Petersburg.

Nehru’s belief that Lenin and Gandhi were cut from the same cloth also merits examination. Yes, both led mass movements in search of freedom. Both were flexible strategists. Gandhi did not shrink from the use of force in a cause he believed was just while Lenin was prepared to cooperate with middle-class parliamentarianism in the development of class forces. Both men gave up personal comforts for an ascetic way of life. Lenin’s three-word objective soared above the ideological hair-splitting that became characteristic of doctrinaire communism. He appreciated Gandhi’s definition of socialism as more than a transformation in economic relations, but a transformation in human psychology as well.

Actually, Gandhi may have felt the first Russian Revolution in 1905 was more relevant to India than the more famous event whose centenary is now being celebrated. He called it “the greatest event of the present century” and “a great lesson to us”. India was also switching to this “Russian remedy against tyranny,” he said enigmatically. The spreading strikes, mass protests, violent demonstrations and bomb attacks may have had a direct bearing on the thinking of some educated young Indians. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, the first engagement between a major European power and an Asian nation, was a resounding Asian triumph. Not only did Russia lose two of its three naval fleets at Japanese hands, but Nicholas II’s gamble cost him considerable prestige at home and abroad.

Nehru records that Allahabad municipality adopted a celebratory resolution. The impact was greatest in Bengal. Surendranath Banerjee’s newspaper, The Bengalee, declared on May 25th, 1906, ‘The revolution that has been effected in Russia after years of bloodshed... may serve as a lesson to other governments and other peoples.’ Warning that ‘in every country there are plenty of secret places where arms can be manufactured,’ a more fiery Calcutta newspaper, Jugantar, advocated plundering post offices, banks and government treasuries to finance revolutionary activities. It also observed that ‘not much physical strength was required to shoot Europeans’.

Almost at the same time as the October Revolution, we in India began a new phase in our struggle for freedom,” Nehru exulted. “And although under the leadership of Gandhi we followed another path, we were influenced by the example of Lenin

While Congress ‘Moderates’ and ‘Extremists’ wrangled endlessly, a small group of young Bengalis noted Lenin’s resort to violence and the advice of another publication, the Indian Sociologist, which advised in December 1907, ‘Any agitation in India must be carried out secretly and the only methods which can bring the English to their senses are the Russian methods vigorously and incessantly applied until the English relax their tyranny and are driven out of the country.’

Violence soon broke out, especially in eastern India with its heritage of terrorism. Two young Bengali boys, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, tried to kill an English magistrate and—as often happened with revolutionaries with more zeal than skill—killed two innocent Englishwomen instead. Applauding their action, the newspaper Kal wrote, ‘The people are prepared to do anything for the sake of swaraj and they no longer sing the glories of British rule. They have no dread of British power. It is simply a question of sheer brute force. Bomb-throwing in India is different from bomb-throwing in Russia. Many of the Russians side with their government against these bomb-throwers, but it is doubtful whether much sympathy will be found in India. If even in such circumstances Russia got the Duma, then India is bound to get swarajya.’

Chaki committed suicide when he was caught but the 18-year-old Bose was hanged and became a hero in the Bengali pantheon. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, second in the legendary Lal-Bal- Pal triumvirate (Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal being the other two) defended the revolutionaries and was deported to Burma to serve a six-year sentence there. ‘There is no end to the acts of violence and plunder which goes under the name of the British system of government in India,’ Lenin pointed out in an article titled ‘Inflammable Material in World Politics’ published only a few days after Tilak’s conviction. Denouncing the sentence, Lenin declared that having once savoured political struggle, Indians would soon overthrow the colonial yoke. Irrespective of what Soviet communist leaders thought of Gandhi and Nehru, it suited them to gush support for India’s cause.

Lenin wrote that angered by the mounting revolutionary struggle in India, the British were ‘demonstrating what brutes’ European politicians could become when the masses opposed colonialism. ‘Nowhere in the world—with the exception, of course of Russia—will you find such abject mass poverty, such chronic starvation among the people’ he thundered. ‘The most liberal and radical personalities of free Britain … become regular Genghis Khans when appointed to govern India, and are capable of sanctioning every means of ‘pacifying’ the population in their charge, even to the extent of flogging political protestors!’

He went on to argue, ‘By their colonial plunder of Asian countries, the Europeans have succeeded in so steeling one of them, Japan, that she has gained great military victories, which have ensured her independent national development. There can be no doubt that the age-old plunder of India by the British, and the contemporary struggle of all these ‘advanced’ Europeans against Persian and Indian democracy, will steel millions, tens of millions of proletarians in Asia to wage … a struggle against their oppressors which will be just as victorious as that of the Japanese.’

LEON TROTSKY WAS less optimistic in ‘An Open Letter to the Workers of India’, written in 1939, just before the Second World War broke out. ‘The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle’ he wrote. ‘They are closely bound up with, and dependent upon, British imperialism... The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. A fake leader and a false prophet! Gandhi and his compeers have developed a theory that India’s position will constantly improve, that her liberties will continually be enlarged, and that India will gradually become a dominion on the road of peaceful reforms. Later on, India may achieve even full independence. This entire perspective is false to the core.’

Trotsky argued percipiently that Indians were grossly mistaken in thinking that their cooperation in the 1914-18 war— Gandhi’s call to enlist or the massive funds mobilised by the princes—would be rewarded with swaraj. Trotsky predicted with uncanny foresight, ‘First of all, exploitation of the colonies will become greatly intensified. The metropolitan centres will not only pump from the colonies foodstuffs and raw materials, but they will also mobilise vast numbers of colonial slaves who are to die on the battlefields for their masters.’ India would be bled white to rebuild a ravaged Britain. ‘Gandhi is already preparing the ground for such a policy,’ he wrote. ‘Double chains of slavery will be the inevitable consequence of the war if the masses of India follow the politics of Gandhi….’

Trotsky understood the human dimension better than Lenin. Like Eric Hobsbawm several decades later, he knew that India’s communist leadership also represented the elite. If he was harsh on the British, refusing to acknowledge the noble impulses that also tempered imperialism, he did recognise the hard core of conservatism that lay at the heart of India’s psyche. Despite grinding poverty and widespread illiteracy, this proved the strongest bulwark against emulating events in St Petersburg even if some deracine Indian leaders flirted with revolutionary ideas.