On 26 June, Indira Gandhi introduced a State of Emergency which led immediately to the arrest of several hundred opposition leaders and to the imposition of a draconian press censorship on the country’s normally vigorous bourgeois press. Emboldened by the feeble response to these measures, Indira Gandhi induced the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament) not merely to ratify the State of Emergency but to abolish retroactively the electoral offences of which she had been found guilty on 11 June. A notable feature of Indira Gandhi’s constitutional coup was the smoothness of its execution and the responsiveness of the state machine to the orders it was receiving. In fact the events following 26 June, however unexpected, had been well prepared by the whole preceding development and notably by a great expansion in the size and role of the state repressive apparatus. Although the international press was silent on the fact, there were already tens of thousands of political prisoners in Indian jails on 26 June. These had been jailed following the Naxalite revolts of the late sixties and early seventies, the attack on the cpm in West Bengal and the brutal suppression of the railway workers’ strike in March 1974. The latter was indeed, in the words of the introduction to Explosion in a Subcontinent, ‘an ominous further step towards establishing a Bonapartist régime in India’.footnote1 Moreover the failure of the Indian Left, and in particular the divided forces of Indian Communism, to wage an effective campaign against this wave of repression was to prove a green light for the present wholesale assault on democratic rights.

The immediate events that precipitated Indira Gandhi’s coup were the judgment against her in the Allahabad court for electoral malpractices, and the defeat of Congress in the Gujarat elections earlier in June after a personal intervention by the Prime Minister. These events were exploited to the full by the motley opposition which joined together the communalist Jan Sangh, the Moraji Desai Congress and the reactionary mystagogue J. P. Narayan. Beneath these opposition forces was a surge of spontaneous social revolts against high prices, hoarding, smuggling and corruption. The demagogy of the opposition was fed by the manifest failure of successive Congress administrations to galvanize Indian capitalism and enable it to offer some hope to the many millioned peoples of the subcontinent.footnote2 The repercussions of the world capitalist recession on the Indian economy have intensified the intractable problems confronted by India’s rulers and have reduced the scope for open political competition between different representatives of the ruling class. But the relative weakness of Indian capitalism by no means implies that the Indian bourgeoisie is a weak or inconsiderable force. Indira Gandhi’s bold move to acquire an unfettered leadership of this class reflects the narrowing options facing Indian capitalism and the political weakness of the worker and peasant masses, but not any lack of political initiative.footnote3 The Indian ruling class is paying a minimal price for its failures because it faces no serious socialist antagonist, capable of mobilizing those masses against their oppressors and exploiters. The bourgeois opposition to Indira Gandhi was able to gain its momentum because of the passivity of the Left and its complicity with some of the worst aspects of the traditional order in India. Despite its present defeat this opposition still represents an alternative bourgeois combination should Indira Gandhi follow too closely the path of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. By contrast, no section of the Left now presents such an alternative despite the considerable resources that have been at its disposal and despite the extremity of the economic and social crisis in India. Yet at the time of Independence Indian Communism was a mass political force, capable of challenging Congress dominance in a number of important areas. In the interview that follows K. Damodaran traces the historical development of the cpi and gives an account of the splits which were to overtake it in the sixties.

Damodaran became actively involved in anti-imperialist, nationalist politics in the late twenties and was imprisoned as a result. In prison he engaged in discussions with a wide range of Left militants, and soon after his release he joined the cpi. He helped to found the Communist unit in Kerala together with E. M. S. Namboodiripad, A. K. Gopalan and others. By working inside the Congress Socialists, the Kerala Communists acquired a mass base in the state which was to become a stronghold of the cpi after Independence. In 1956 Damodaran was to become a member of the cpi National Council (the local equivalent of the Central Committee), on which he served for twelve years. He also represented the cpi for six years in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) in the late sixties. Damodaran was not only an important mass leader for the cpi in Kerala, but also a writer and playwright of some repute, whose agitprop dramas were extremely popular with audiences in the countryside and cities. In an article written in May 1974, Damodaran quoted the following passage from Marx: ‘Proletarian revolutions constantly engage in self-criticism, and in repeated interruptions of their own course. They return to what has apparently been accomplished in order to begin the task again, with merciless thoroughness they mock the wretched aspect of their first attempts.’ In this interview Damodaran is not merciless, but he nonetheless sheds a much needed and timely light on the failures of Indian Communism. Through the twists and turns of party policy the cpi sacrificed the development of the mass organizations and an independent proletarian line for the sake of short-lived adventures or coalitions with the most reactionary political forces.

In the early twenties the tiny groups of Indian Communists were encouraged to initiate a military struggle for liberation long before the pre-conditions for such a struggle were present. The Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky did not grasp the specific nature of the Indian social formation nor correctly assess the strength of the bourgeois nationalism of Congress. It was insistently maintained that Congress would not undertake a struggle against British rule. This error was to be greatly compounded in the Comintern Third Period, during which Indian Communists became completely isolated from the mainstream of the nationalist movement. Congress was denounced as being a vulgar tool of British Imperialism. The turn towards Popular Fronts inaugurated by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern was to witness the emergence of the cpi as a nationally organized force. In this period the cpi grew from no more than 150 members to nearly 5,000 members. With the outbreak of the Second World War the cpi first opposed any support for Britain and France and then, following the invasion of the Soviet Union, gave wholehearted allegiance to the war effort acting as a recruiting sergeant for the British Armed Forces just at the time when the Congress leadership was launching its ‘Quit India’ movement against British rule. Yet again the cpi was out of step with the development of the national movement. At the time of independence the cpi switched to support for both Congress and the Muslim League, endorsing the religious division of the sub-continent. In the late forties, after denouncing the Congress Government as a British puppet, the cpi embarked on a series of armed uprisings in areas where it had gained mass influence. The mid-fifties saw another sharp turn. Congress was hailed as a progressive anti-imperialist force and the party dedicated itself to acquiring the parliamentary seats that would, it was hoped, enable it to inflect Congress to the Left.

Damodaran argues that the eventual split in the cpi in the sixties, leading to the creation of the cpm, did not concern the basic question of whether the cpi should break with its parliamentary, class collaborationist strategy but rather the tactical question of which bourgeois allies were to be preferred in the pursuit of electoral advance. The cpi was prepared to give every political support to Congress hoping one day to achieve a formal Governmental coalition with it. It has continued to give the most servile support to Indira Gandhi, even after the suppression of the 1974 railway workers’ strike and the qualitative turn to dictatorship of June 1975. Following the split with the cpi, the cpm displayed every readiness to ally itself with the most reactionary bourgeois opposition parties. During the most recent period, weakened by its setbacks in West Bengal, it has trailed along behind the campaign of Narayan. Following the imposition of the State of Emergency it proved incapable of mounting any resistance to Indira Gandhi. In their pursuit of different electoral combinations the two Communist Parties were prepared to split the mass organizations of the Indian working class and peasantry, and to facilitate an increasingly arrogant and arbritrary assertion of the power of the capitalist state. Meanwhile the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ groups which split from the cpm, allegedly on the grounds of its opportunism, have been scattered and defeated after a succession of terrorist adventures: some ‘m-l’ groups even allowed themselves to become instruments of Congress thuggery against the cpm.

Despite the courage and dedication of thousands of Communist militants, their best efforts have been continually squandered and falsified by the strategic conceptions of the leaders of Indian Communism. These conceptions led them repeatedly to misconstrue the nature of the state and the social formation in India, to subordinate themselves to the political agents of imperialism and capitalism, and to interrupt the development of the mass movement; occasional bouts of adventurism and terrorism only served to consolidate a fundamentally class collaborationist and electoralist strategy.footnote4

This interview with Damodaran was conducted shortly before the declaration of the State of Emergency. Nothing that has happened subsequently does anything but confirm his bleak and pessimistic balance sheet of Indian Communism. Yet the necessary task of identifying the failures and mistakes of the past will assist the Indian Left to meet its historic responsibilities in the future. The reader will also discover that this personal memoir by an Indian Communist gives many insights into the development of the international movement of which he was a part. Despite his many disappointments, Damodaran still draws inspiration from the advances of the revolutionary movement elsewhere in the world and is confident that the forces accumulated in the past by Indian Communism could be re-grouped and recuperated by a genuinely revolutionary strategy in the sub-continent.