Lohia to JP, Stalin: Why Nehru came under fire from socialists and communists alike | The Financial Express

Lohia to JP, Stalin: Why Nehru came under fire from socialists and communists alike

The Jawaharlal Nehru-Jayaprakash Narayan broadsides, documented in their biographies, indicate the paradoxes of politics, economics, business and governance in newly-independent India.

Jawaharlal nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru | File

By Raju Mansukhani

“So this is how you wish to treat a democratic revolution in a neighbouring state!…you are destroying yourself. One by one you are denying your noble ideals. You are compromising, you are yielding. You are estranging your friends and slipping into the parlour of your enemies…and please learn to discipline your temper.”

These angry words of Jayaprakash Narayan to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter dated 17 November 1950, reveal the loss of faith in the Prime Minister’s leadership and commitment to socialist ideals. Jayaprakash rebuked Nehru for not supporting the Nepal Congress and BP Koirala with military support.

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As Congressmen loyal to the Gandhian ethic, Jayaprakash and Nehru had worked closely together since the early 1930s. In fact, Jayaprakash was an ardent admirer of Nehru and his ideological moorings and zeal to work for the party.

JP, as he was known, had now become bitterly critical of Nehru’s domestic and foreign policies; in 1948 he was one among the Congress Socialist Party leaders who left the parent Congress party. It was a severe blow for Nehru who saw some of the most loyal and brilliant partymen walk out, unable to bridge ideological differences on socialism, economic development and modernity. These socialist leaders included Acharya Narendra Dev, Dr Rammanohar Lohia, Minoo Masani, Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Yusuf Meherally to name a few. They advocated democratic socialism and the empowerment of trade unions, cooperatives in both urban and rural areas as hubs of economic activities.

As early as 10 December 1948, Jayaprakash had written to Nehru in words that proved prophetic. “You want to go towards socialism, but you want the capitalists to help in that. You want to build socialism with the help of capitalism. You are bound to fail in that.” Later in March 1949, in a telegram to Nehru, he objected vehemently to legislation outlawing strikes in the essential services, describing it as an “ugly example of growing Indian fascism”.

The Nehru-Jayaprakash Narayan broadsides and correspondence, documented in both their biographies, indicate the paradoxes of politics, economics, business and governance in newly-independent India. Nehru, in a letter to Vallabhbhai Patel, wrote, “As for the Socialists, they continue to show an amazing lack of responsibility and constructive bent of mind. They seem to be all frustrated and going mentally to pieces.”

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Jayaprakash Narayan, who always addressed Nehru as “Bhai” in his letters, wrote, “All I can do is to wonder how far apart we have travelled in looking at things. No doubt I am academic and doctrinaire.”

Communist Pressure

In their opposition to Nehru’s government, the Communists were equally relentless, fierce and critical. “In the absence of strong mass pressure from the left, Nehru’s utterances remain mere words and Nehru becomes more and more the democratic mask for Patel,” to quote a Communist Party of India statement, dated 21 December 1947. There should be violent opposition to the government “in all sphere and on all fronts” and by waging “serious, very serious battles”, power should be seized in a short time. The veteran communist leader R Palme Dutt said, “the day of veiled imperialism under the form of slave-controlled ‘independence’ will not last long.”

From March 1948, just six months after Independence, the Communists began militant mass movements in various areas across India. To Nehru, now living in the lush environs of Teen Murti Bhavan, once the Flagstaff House in New Delhi, these movements appeared to have developed into an anti-national campaign.

He termed it worse than an open rebellion and aimed at total disruption which would result in widespread chaos, regardless of consequences. “I have not the least feeling against communism or against communists as such. As you know, the British Tory press often describes me as a pal of Stalin. But I must confess that the way the communists are carrying on in India in the shape of the most violent activity and writing is enough to disgust anyone. There is a complete lack of integrity and decency,” his biographer, S.Gopal, quoted a letter written to Lord Mountbatten.

In February-March 1951 in the far away Kremlin, J.V Stalin played host to Communist Party of India leaders. Ajoy Ghosh, Rajeshwara Rao, M Basavapunnaiah and SA Dange were the Politburo members with whom the Soviet leader had in-depth discussions, interactions and provided clarity the Indian communists needed on several questions.

Said Vijay Singh, a retired professor of history from Delhi University who researched and translated key documents from the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, “Stalin’s understanding of the problems before the Communist Party of India (CPI) exerted a profound effect on the course of the history of the party." Some of these archival documents have only been recently released by the Russians.

“The party’s approach to the understanding of the character of the Indian state was recast. The Stalin meetings helped the Indian leaders understand the stage of revolution, the path of revolution, and the nature of armed revolution and armed struggle. What was the role of the working class and the peasantry in the revolutionary process in India? These subjects found expression in the formulation of new party documents,” Vijay Singh explained, summarising over four decades of his research into few notes for lay readers today.

Nehru, a “puppet”?

Stalin was asked by the Indian leaders whether the government of Pt Jawaharlal Nehru be considered a puppet of English imperialism. They likened the Nehru government to the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek, a puppet of American imperialism and the French government of Rene Pleven, a puppet of the American imperialists.

“According to my understanding, Chiang Kai-shek could not be considered a puppet when he was based in China. He became a puppet when he crossed over to Formosa. I cannot consider the government of Nehru as a puppet. All of his roots are in the population…Hence it follows that in India it is impossible that partisan war can be considered the main form of struggle, maybe it is necessary to say the highest form of struggle?” Stalin’s reply is documented in the papers.

The Soviet leader had words of caution for the Indian Communists. He said, “It is therefore impossible to say that partisan war is the main form of struggle in the country. It is also untrue to assert that civil war in the country is in full swing. In Telangana land was seized but it proves little. This is still the beginning of the opening of the struggle but it is not the main form of the struggle from which India is still distant. The peasant needs to learn to struggle on the small questions – lowering lease rents, lowering the share
of the harvest which is paid to the landlord, etc. It is necessary to train the cadres on such small questions and not speak at once of armed struggle. If you begin a broad armed struggle, then serious difficulties will arise at your end as your party is weak.”

Uncompromising Critic

If there was a strong uncompromising critic of Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, it was Dr Rammanohar Lohia, who joined the Congress Socialist Party and continued to assess and reassess the socialist programmes underway. His provocative speeches were targeted at the Congress and the growing personality cult around Nehru.

Like JP, Lohia too was highly critical of both capitalism and communism. He challenged Nehru and the Congress leaders to think afresh, for an Indian political and economic system that would help the poor and not ape wealth creation of the west. “He believed that the ruling party and its leaders had deliberately distanced themselves from the people of India, economically, linguistically and sartorially.

They were a new elite, brown in colour, but white in language, customs and manners,” wrote historian Dr Ramachandra Guha. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, despite ideological battles on socialism and revolution, Lohia remained focussed on caste eradication and equality. Though he was considered a heretic and often called a loose cannon, his fight against caste-based inequality is inspiring and relevant to date.

“When everybody has an equal opportunity, castes with the 5000-year-old traditions of liberal education would be on top. Only the exceptionally gifted from the lower castes would be able to break through this tradition,” wrote Lohia, adding, “This is what India’s political parties, Congress, Communist and Praja Socialists, under Mr. Nehru’s leadership have in mind. They would want men and women of exceptional ability from the lower castes to join their ranks. But they would want the structure as a whole to be kept intact. They are themselves drawn overwhelmingly from the higher castes. They have no hesitation in denouncing their caste or the distinction of high and low castes, so long as their social group based on traditions, ability and manners is left unaffected.”

Dr Rammanohar Lohia’s essays, letters and speeches bring to life an era when the political discourse in our young nation was driven by diverse ideologies.

(The author is a researcher-writer specializing in history and heritage issues, and a former deputy curator of the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya. Views expressed are personal.)

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First published on: 12-09-2022 at 16:50 IST