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Book Review: Scanning P.C. Joshi’s Biography

by Dr. Daya Varma, 19 April 2009

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Mainstream, Vol 47, 18 April 2009

P.C. Joshi: A Biography by Gargi Chakravartty; National Book Trust, New Delhi; 2007; pages 119; Rs 30; ISBN 978-81-237-5052-1.

The crowning of Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the Prime Minister of India on May 16, 1996, even if for just 16 days, formally ended the political domination of the Congress. Since then India has been ruled not by any single party but by an alliance of parties. The Communist Party of India (CPI) and CPI-Marxist also think of building electoral alliances. The only leader who could foresee the necessity of a United Front of secular and democratic forces, not for electoral gains but as a prerequisite for the national regeneration of India, was Puran Chand Joshi. Ironically, it was his own party, the CPI, which foiled his attempts.

However, history does stand on its head, even if belatedly. On the birth centenary of Joshi (April 14, 2007), Mainstream had tributes to Joshi from Govind Vidyarthi, Dilip Bose, Sunil Sen and Diwan Singh Bajeli. Gargi Chakravartty released her engaging book, P.C. Joshi: A Biography, and there was an excellent review of her book by Rakesh Gupta (1). Here is a belated review of the same book from a slightly different perspective and this might not be out of place.

As Chakravartty’s book reveals, Joshi’s leadership is replete with examples of his correct assessment of different political formations in India and how a Communist Party should deal with them. On many grounds, Chakravartty’s overall assessment is in harmony with that of Mohit Sen (2).

There is some indication of reassessment of Joshi’s role by the present CPI and CPI-M. However, Joshi has yet to receive the honour and tribute he deserves. There are Ranadive and Ajoy Ghosh Bhawans and there is Comrade Indrajit Gupta Marg in an enclave in New Delhi but there is no Joshi corner. Late Mohit Sen wrote: "...we were unjust, including to ourselves. What did some of us not do to try to destroy P.C. Joshi or S.A. Dange?" (3). Gargi Chakravartty expresses her own anguish: "Here was a leader ...who elevated the infant Communist Party to a national stature, and yet who was cornered and ignored by his fellow travellers at the fag end of his life." She adds: "It is an irony that whereas nobody understood his politics of National Front in his lifetime, today the same politics is being carried forward by the existing Left formations."

Chakravartty wrote her book in 2007; if she writes a second preface in a subsequent edition, she might as well add that while Joshi was steadfastly uncompromising towards Right-wing communalists, his fellow travellers are accommodating. At the Patna Congress of the CPI in 1968, Joshi called for a break of the alliance of the CPI with the Jan Sangh in the coalition Ministries following the 1967 elections; for this, he "was removed from the party’s National Council". When the 79-year old Somnath Chatterjee declined to link with the Bharatiya Janata Party (the adult Jan Sangh) to topple the Manmohan Singh Government in 2008, he was summarily expelled by the CPI-M leadership.

The choice of Professor Bipan Chandra to write the Foreword shows Chakravartty’s grasp of the prevailing culture within the broader fraternity of Indian Communists. On his part Chandra emphasises a key element in Joshi’s outlook: "...he (Joshi) warned the Indian people that the communal forces posed the most important threat to Indian democracy and development."

Besides the Foreword and the Preface, Chakravartty’s book has six chapters with succinct description of different facets of Joshi’s life as well as the twists and turns in the history of the Indian communist movement during one of the most turbulent periods in colonial and post-colonial India. Joshi not only had to deal with the complexities of the rapidly changing political scenario in India but also with rational as well as irrational interventions by the Comintern, primarily but not exclusively through Rajani Palme Dutt of the British Communist Party.

In the first chapter "Early Years", Chakravartty narrates the transition of Joshi from a Left-leaning youth within the Congress to "a student Communist". Chakravartty does not infer any direct relationship between Joshi’s beginning as a Congress activist closer to Nehru than to Gandhi and his overall policy of unity and struggle with the Congress; however, drawing such an inference would be consistent with the overall spirit of the book.

The second chapter "Political Baptism" is set in the backdrop of the 1920s and 1930s, when a good section of patriotic youth were getting "disillusioned with the Gandhian strategy of non-violent struggle particularly after the sudden withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement in 1922". Bhagat Singh, born (September 27, 1907) the same year as Joshi (April 14, 1907), was hanged on March 23, 1931 along with his comrades, Rajguru and Sukhdev. The failure of the Congress to respond to the anti-imperialist aspiration of the people, and the visit of the Simon Commission in November 1927, dramatically altered the political culture of India. Trade unions and peasant organisations came into being and Joshi became the Joint Secretary of the UP unit of the Peasants’ and Workers Party at its Meerut session in 1925.

Devotion to one’s country and religion is culturally determined. However, people join communist organisations after a certain degree of study, analysis and investigation. No wonder that the best minds of India were drawn towards the ideals of communism and socialism and Joshi was one of them. Chakravartty writes that on March 20, 1929, British Communists-Bradley, Spratt and Hutchison-as well as Indian labour leaders-S.V. Ghate, S.A. Dange, S.S. Mirajkar, Dr. G. Adhikari, Muzaffar Ahmed, Dharani Goswami, Gopen Chakraborty and the 22-year-old P.C. Joshi-were arrested in the course of a strike; this became the Meerut Conspiracy Case, which continued for three years and Joshi formally joined the Communist Party in the first year in jail. Chakravartty writes how Joshi was the best draftsman, wrote legal notes on behalf of all prisoners and led a disciplined life in jail: "his gardening was appreciated by all". "The defence document, containing 65 types pages," Chakravartty says, "is in itself a masterpiece for any political study" and the "texture of his (Joshi’s) arguments saw the making of a leader."

The "Sixth World Congress of Comintern (1928)" and "the draft resolution on India in March 1930" branded the Worker-Peasant Parties "as petty bourgeois". Meerut convicts thought this line "unrealistic and such revolutionary outpourings would isolate them even from the Communist workers and also the masses". Nevertheless Joshi and others abided by the Comintern directive.

Joshi became the General Secretary of the CPI in 1936. Acutely aware of the role of intellectuals and different strata, Joshi founded the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), All India Students’ Federation (AISF), All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and later in 1943 the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). The secular cultural renaissance which the PWA and IPTA generated is portrayed in a 13-part serial narrated by Syed Mohammed Mehdi, a friend and comrade of Joshi (4) and in an article by Anil Rajimwale (5). Chakravartty has succeeded in compressing this tumultuous period in 20 pages without missing the essence, a commendable task indeed.

The third chapter "A Mass Organiser" starts with the statement: "P.C. Joshi as an organiser was almost unequalled", and: "His leadership was the most brilliant chapter of the people’s history of our country, not merely the party’s history." This is not a subjective response by the author for similar sentiments have been echoed by Mohit Sen (2), Anil Rajimwale (5), Overstreet and Windmiller (6), as well as many of Joshi’s comrades and friends; some like Dr Narendra Gupta are trying to infuse life into the Joshi-Adhikari Foundation.

In general Chakravartty attributes the organising marvel of Joshi to his personality; while this no doubt was important, implicit in her book is an additional feature which made Joshi a great organiser. Joshi could identify what is necessary at a given time and, more importantly, find a method of involving people into action and organisations. Joshi’s dynamism in arousing women into the communist fold is summed up by the author through the following statement of Manikuntala Sen: "The person who first showed us how to do this kind of work was P.C. Joshi, the then party leader. In order to fight for the special rights of women, we would have to organise all women save those belonging to the uppermost rungs of society."

Another example of Joshi’s sensitivity and organising skill is illustrated by Chakravartty’s heartrending description of his role during the Great Bengal famine of 1943. The party’s slogan "Bhookha hai Bangal", Johi’s pamphlet "Who Lives if Bengal Dies" and the IPTA’s countrywide efforts with Balraj Sahni in the lead, were the only respite for the starving millions of Bengal; "art became a vehicle, a medium for political struggle". Joshi "specified twin tasks of the party-enlarge the relief kitchens..., and ensure that it (harvest) does not go to the hoarders". She could have added that nothing contributed to the strengthening of the CPI in Bengal more than the Party’s work during this period.

Chakravartty writes how in these difficult times in the midst of the ’Quit India’ Movement Joshi organised the First Congress of the Party in Bombay (May 23 to June 1, 1943), increased the membership of the Party and front organisations and the circulation of the Party publications. The CPI had become a national force such that during the Great Naval Mutiny of 1946 organised by the Party, the flags of the Congress, Muslim League as well the Red Flag fluttered on numerous places near the dock.

Chakravartty picks up shining examples in the life of the Party and Joshi and details it when appropriate. For example, in describing the Kayyur episode, in which four young men Kunhambu, Chirukandan, Appu and Abubaker (our own Julius Fuciks to kiss the Gallows), were executed for defending the honour of a Muslim peasant woman (a constable was killed in this incident), expressed their last wish to meet their leader, P.C. Joshi. Joshi did go and spoke to them through a translator with a "flood of tears" on his cheek. Chakravartty describes this moving event in detail including the last words of these unsung heroes. "The party made me capable of doing whatever I did for the people. If the party thinks I have done my duty that is all I ever wished," were the very last words of Kunhambu from the first cell. "You (Joshi) have brought the great news of the growing strength of the party", echoed Appu. Chirukandan added: "We are only four kisan sons. But India has millions of kisans. We can be hanged but they can’t be destroyed." And Abubaker from the last cell said: "We never dreamt that we will share the honour of being one of them (martyrs)."

Chakravartty writes that the basic organisation, including acquisition of arms, prior to the start of the Telangana struggle against the Nizam and Razakars was established by Joshi. There are other accounts that more armed struggles were fought during Joshi’s time than at any other time (see, Mainstream April 14, 2007 issue) and none was adventurist. Notwithstanding all this, Joshi writes that the CPI-M characterised "me as the most honest and consistent Rightist".

Chakravartty describes Joshi travelling all over the country in third class railway compartments with the Party paper and engaging fellow passengers in political discussion; Mohit Sen also refers to Joshi’s use of railway journey as a political platform (7).

Chapter IV "Joshi and the National Movement" deals with the rapidly developing scenario both during and after World War II. According to Chakravartty, "P.C. Joshi’s life and activities were replete with various problems related to international and national politics". The ’People’s War’ slogan of a broad united front against fascism necessitated support for British war efforts; it was a correct but unpopular policy. Party members, offices, meetings were attacked; Joshi asked comrades to defend but not get provoked. For Joshi it was not easy to "swing over from the imperialist to the People’s War slogan with British imperialism sitting on our chest". But he did it and did it brilliantly. The CPI grew at a rapid rate during this period.

The CPI’s ’People’s War’ strategy was not as simplistic as it was popularly believed then and is made out to be now. Joshi fought to combine the ’People’s War’ slogan as integral to and an essential element of national emancipation. Joshi paid special attention to the danger posed by Japanese fascists who were on the eastern doorsteps of India. Indeed Joshi’s prediction that India would gain independence in the course of the anti-fascist fight (8) proved correct.

Chakravartty explains the CPI’s position of that period through several statements from Joshi’s book, The Indian Communist Party: Its Policy and Work in the War of Liberation, published in 1942. One of the quotes is: "... the peoples of India and the colonies in the East, who have learned by their experience that freedom cannot come as a gift from imperialists, also know well that it can neither come to them on the point of the blood-stained swords of the Japanese fascist." Joshi gave the slogan: "Unite to win the People’s War and India’s Freedom."

Joshi maintained communication with Gandhi, the "architect of the ’Quit India’ Movement". According to Chakravartty, "Gandhi-Joshi Correspondence ... sold like hot cake all over the country; and it was translated in all the main Indian languages." In one letter Joshi writes: "I am writing to you because you are the nation’s father." Chakravartty says: "It was Joshi who called Gandhi the nation’s Father for the first time (emphasis added)." The book does not mention but there were a few Congress members whose position was similar to that of the CPI. For example, V.K. Krishna Menon, the official representative of the Congress in London at the time, wrote that participation in the world anti-fascist front was an integral part of Indian policy, but the demand for freedom was equally a part of that policy (9).

Chakravartty deals with Joshi’s efforts for a national government and for Congress-Muslim League unity and his disappointment at the failure of the Gandhi-Jinnah meet on the eve of independence; she details the splendid role of the CPI during the horrifying communal riots of 1946 and sums up the chapter in these words: "Joshi’s period (1936-1948) has been the most brilliant chapter of the Indian communist movement....It was during this period that not only did the CPI become a national party, but it also played a part in the mainstream national movement..."

Chapter V "Post-Independence: The Struggle Within" deals with perhaps the most controversial aspect of the CPI’s history. Chakravartty writes: "Like Mahatma Gandhi, P.C. Joshi was also opposed to the Mountbatten Plan of dividing India as accepted by both the Congress and Muslim League." On the transfer of minorities from one side to the other, she quotes Gandhi: "The wrong of Pakistan will be undone by the right of resolute non-transference of population. I hope I shall have the courage to stand by it, even though mine be the solitary voice (emphasis added) in its favour." Joshi now felt closer to Gandhi than to any other Congress leader. It is ironic that both these icons of India became solitary voices.

Although Joshi was opposed to the division of the country, he welcomed the independence of India "as the first milestone in India’s journey towards national regeneration". In the meantime the Cominform (the new name of Comintern) spokesperson in Belgrade (Tito had not yet earned the ire of Stalin) told Dange to be careful of Joshi, which boosted the morale of the anti-Joshi faction within the CPI. The beneficiary was B.T. Ranadive, the new General Secretary of the CPI in December 1947 appointed by an unconstitutional procedure.

The Second Congress of the CPI was held in Calcutta in 1948 and the new leadership gave a call for armed struggle; the slogans were: "Telangana’s path is our path" and "Yeh azadi jhooti hai (this independence is fake)". Joshi never considered the bourgeoisie as a monolith but the new leadership did. Joshi was forced to make a self-criticism; he was suspended from the Party on January 27, 1949 and expelled in December 1949. Chakravartty quotes Joshi’s response: "But try however much, you will not succeed in provoking me to repeat the crimes of your own youth, that is, try to split the party and start a rival racket." Joshi remained "loyal to the party" throughout his life. Those were different days; since 1964, however, splits after splits are treated as Bolshevism in action.

Following the Second Congress, the Party was declared illegal in many provinces. The call for a railway strike by Ranadive in March 1949 was a total failure; the "peasant movement was virtually liquidated everywhere barring Telangana". Chakravartty adds: "The party membership in those two years had drastically fallen from 90,000 to around 9,000." Only after the January 27, 1950 editorial in the Cominform (the new name for Comintern) journal (10), which "essentially mirrored Joshi’s viewpoint", Ranadive was replaced by C. Rajeswara Rao as the General Secretary but "there was no marked shift in the party’s political line".

Chakravartty makes a point that the hostility of the Communists to Nehru allowed the entry of anti-communists and feudalists inside the Congress. If her analysis is sound, it has profound implications regarding the present policy of the CPI and CPI-M towards the Congress and might as well be a reason for the steady degeneration of the Congress.

Ajoy Ghosh replaced Rajeswara Rao in 1951 and Joshi was readmitted to the Party on June 1, 1951; however, he felt that "Ajoy Ghosh and S.A. Dange were trying to do to Ranadive and those loyal to him and his line what he had done to me and others...". Joshi continued his work as a journalist producing India Today with late O.P. Sangal. Chakravartty reproduces an article from India Today (February-March 1952) after the decisive victory of the Congress in the 1952 elections; the quote is too long to reproduce but highly relevant to the present situation. Here again Joshi argues for a United Front of democratic forces; this contrasts with the attempt to erect a Third Front of anti-Congress forces as is being envisioned by the CPI and CPI-M on the eve of the 15th parliamentary elections.

The Palghat Party Congress of 1956 essentially adopted a line which Joshi had been advocating for long. However, the India-China war worsened the inner life and debates within the Party, with split becoming imminent; this was very painful to Joshi. Chakravartty concludes the chapter with the following statement: "He (Joshi) might have been away from party politics, but his political mind was never away from people. That was P.C. Joshi."

The last Chapter VI is titled "The Humanist" and here the author sums up the totality of Joshi’s personality "as a communist, an organiser, a freedom fighter, a nationalist, a writer, a journalist, an art critic-all rolled into one but, above all, he was an exceedingly kind, warm hearted, compassionate and sensitive human being."

Puran Chand Joshi was born in Almora, then the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh on April 14, 1907 and died in Delhi on November 9, 1980.

I was fortunate to work with Joshi for a few weeks during the textile workers’ strike in Kanpur in the 1950s. At the end of each day he would prepare reports and press releases from his hiding; his affection towards me was overpowering. My personal impression of P.C. Joshi, expressed in an article earlier (11) is in accord with what Gargi Chakravartty writes about him in her book.

Gargi Chakravartty’s book is about P.C. Joshi but it can also be read as a brief history of the Indian communist movement; on both accounts the book is very much worth reading.

Notes

1. Gupta, R., "P.C. Joshi: the Organiser, Communicator and Culturalist", Mainstream, 45: 2007.

2. Sen, M., A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist., 2003, Rupa & Co., New Delhi.

3. Ibid., p. 493.

4. Mamoonjaan ki Diary, Genesis Media, India, 2008 (13 Episodes, 30 min each).

5. Rajimwale, A., "P.C. Joshi and Cultural Renaissance in India", New Age, December 31, 2006.

6. Overstreet, G.D. and Windmiller, M., Communism in India, University of California Press, Berkley, 1958, p. 192.

7. Reference 2, p. 120.

8. Reference 6, p. 199.

9. Reference 6, p. 203.

10. Editorial: "Mighty advance of the national liberation movement in the colonial and dependent countries", For a Lasting Peace, For a People’s Democracy, (Organ of the Information Bureau of the Communist International, Bucharest), January 27, 1950, No. 4, page 1.

The relevant portion is reproduced below:

"The mass movement of the peoples in the colonies and semi-colonies, the movement that unfolded after the war and developed into an armed struggle, forced the British imperialists to make a tactical retreat. Sham independence was bestowed on India. ....

"In these conditions the task of the Indian Communists, drawing on the experience of the national liberation movement in China and other countries, is, naturally, to strengthen the alliance of the working class with all the peasantry, to fight for the introduction of the urgently needed agrarian reform and on the basis of common struggle for freedom and national independence of their country, against the Anglo-American imperialists’ oppressing it and against the reactionary big bourgeoisie and feudal princes collaborating with them: to unite all classes, parties, groups and organisations willing to defend the national independence and freedom of India."

The passages were vague enough for Ajoy Ghosh to say: "None of us is clear what the Lasting Peace editorial means. If anybody claims he is correct, it is arrogance on his part." Reference 6, p. 303.

11.Varma, D., "Remembering P.C. Joshi and the Culture of Communal Harmony", INSAF Bulletin (Montreal, Canada), No. 58, February 2007.