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Reflections of an Indian Communist

an Indian Communist A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist by Mohit Sen; Rupa and Co, New Delhi, 2003;
DAYA VARMA Mohit Sen is the editor of Volume 8 of the History (1951-56) of the Communist Party of India (CPI). A Traveller and the Road is a journey of a communist no doubt. Not surprisingly, there are many communists in India today, standing at each twist and turn of Mohit Sen

Reflections of an Indian Communist

A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist

by Mohit Sen; Rupa and Co, New Delhi, 2003; pp 524, Rs 295.


ohit Sen is the editor of Volume 8 of the History (1951-56) of the Communist Party of India (CPI). A Traveller and the Road is a journey of a communist no doubt. Not surprisingly, there are many communists in India today, standing at each twist and turn of Mohit Sen’s road, though many will reject these musings by Mohit Sen as revisionist trash.

From 1950 to 1975

It was the year 1950. Mohit Sen was the president of the Cambridge University Communist Party branch with a number of Indian members, all brilliant and privileged. Nehru was visiting England. CPI was headed by B T Ranadive. The Telangana anti-Razakar and peasant struggle was being transformed into the Bolshevik revolution. Indian communists at Cambridge wanted to contribute to this upheaval. They had planned to “pour a bucket of tar with feathers” on the Indian high commissioner V K Krishna Menon. Rajani Palme Dutt (RPD), the leader of the British Communist Party found the idea absurd, and an alternate plan was made. Thus, Mohit Sen and his comrades stood in front of the High Commission in London with placards “Fascist Nehru and his faithful servant V K Krishna Menon”.

In the year 1975, a quarter century later, Indira Gandhi had declared the national Emergency, which lasted till 1977. The CPI supported the Emergency, Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977 and the CPI also suffered. Morarji Desai became the prime minister. The CPI later criticised itself for supporting the Emergency and for not having openly opposed excesses by Sanjay Gandhi and making public its stand that elections be held in 1976, a year earlier than 1977. Bhupesh Gupta, the brilliant parliamentarian and one of the top leaders of CPI, once very close to Indira Gandhi, abandoned her. Mohit Sen, however, remained a regular visitor to Indira Gandhi’s residence. When the CPI criticised itself for supporting the Emergency, Mohit Sen wrote about his conversation with Rajeshwara Rao, the general secretary of CPI at that time: “The CPI would convert itself into a tail of and eventually a clone of the CPI(M)…while there could be more than one Communist Party in the country, there was no room for two CPI(M)s”. Was he correct in his prediction?

In the period between these two extreme positions of calling Nehru a fascist, whose credentials as an anti-fascist are second to none in India, and becoming a confidante of Indira Gandhi, Mohit Sen did many things. He spent two years in China training to be a good communist.

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

Liu Shao-qi, the author of How To Be a Good Communist was the head of the school, though Mohit Sen’s stay in China was a top secret. His passport was neither stamped in Soviet Union from where he went to China, nor in China. He could not write to Vanaja, his wife-to-be and to his ailing father, an influential Calcutta high court judge. The anxious father enquired about his son from C Rajagopalachari, the home minister at that time, who told him that his son was alive in Beijing but that he was not sure when and if he would return. Sen writes “The so-called enemy, therefore, knew!” Could it be that the Indian state almost always knows where the enemies are?

During the same years Mohit Sen and many others re-examined P C Joshi’s assessment of Nehru, Gandhi and the Congress. They reached the conclusion that while there were anti-communists in the Congress, Congress was not an anti-communist organisation and, if anything, Nehru was sympathetic to communists, to Soviet Union and socialism. If Mohit Sen’s evaluation of Congress is correct, the CPI should have held Nehru in higher esteem and should have had a different vocabulary for Congress matching, if not exceeding Mao Zedong’s attitude towards Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang (KMT) under his leadership.

Mohit Sen was amongst a large number of top intellectuals of India who came close to or became members of the CPI during the 1940s. They were inspired by the Bolshevik revolution and by a party led by P C Joshi. Sen names almost all of these intellectuals, many personally known to me. He also mentions the great poet, star of Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA), trade unionist and a hero of the Telangana peasant struggle – Makhdoom Mohiuddin. It is mind-boggling how he remembers all the details, some times even what he ate on a particular evening and who cooked it, though the book gives no idea tha the maintained a diary.

He credits only two leaders with respect and admiration throughout this account – P C Joshi, the dynamic first general secretary of the CPI and S A Dange, a parliamentarian of no match and an able trade unionist and ceremonial chairman of the CPI who, according to Sen, never compromised within the party. The rumour in those days was that when Dange raised an issue in the parliament, Nehru’s instruction was that only he would respond and not the minister concerned. Later, Dange and Mohit Sen became the chief leaders of the United Communist Party of India (UCPI), which steadfastly believed in allying with Congress for the national revolution. Joshi, Dange and Sen were either expelled from the CPI or left before they could be. Mohit Sen writes: “In India and other democratic countries, our crimes did not reach the level of communists in Soviet Union and China. But we were unjust, including to ourselves. What did some of us not do to try to destroy P C Joshi or S A Dange?”

He held a lot of affection for A K Gopalan (AKG). Sen cites a hilarious episode about AKG’s visit to a red village in Punjab. Gopalan liked to converse in the language of the people. As he went from one house to another he enquired the name in Punjabi and invariably got the reply ‘hain ji’ because people did not understand his question. Upon returning to Delhi he narrated his experience and expressed surprise that every one in the village had the same name

– hain ji. Mohit Sen and others burst into laughter. When the matter was explained to AKG, Mohit Sen writes, his laughter was the loudest. He is critical but also full of praise for Dr Adhikari, Bhupesh Gupta, Indrajit Gupta, Rajeshwara Rao, E M S Namboodiripad, Ajoy Ghosh and Jyoti Basu among others. He has nothing nice to say about B T Ranadive and P Sundarayya though and for some reason Somnath Chatterjee’s name does not appear in the book.

Mohit Sen’s journey begins as that of thousands of others in the 1940s under very harsh conditions. I used to think that only Naxalites lived a life of hardship. Reading Mohit Sen’s book, I realise the communists of 1930s and 1940s in India (and most probably other capitalist or colonial countries as well) had even harder times. Mohit Sen says that the only thing many of them had was the party – no income, no home, no family. Remarkably, they were proud of what they did even when they left the party, though the association with the party had an imprint like a tattoo upon them for ever.

The book is passionate but as objective a history of the communist movement as possible from the founding of the CPI till the Naxalite movement. It also is a literary piece. Perhaps if Mohit Sen knew that he was such a good writer, he would have written many books.

A Traveller and the Road is a truthful account that also gives a glimpse of the world communist movement. Mohit Sen feels Khrushchev wanted to rectify Stalinist errors using the Stalinist method and hence did not succeed. Gorbachev tried it in a democratic way and the 18 million-member Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) collapsed and “there was not even the squeak of any protest whatsoever”. In India even a hut cannot be demolished without some protest. We even have a protest centre called Jantar Mantar. It is worth noting that with the exception of CPI and UCPI, every communist formation in India flaunts the photograph of Stalin.

What changed Mohit Sen and many others from 1950 to 1975? It was not fatigue, not defeat nor lack of confidence in the final victory of the cause and socialism. It is the way he perceived and analysed events, the most significant shift being from his loyalty to the party to a loyalty for India and its people. Nehru’s words “Sen was a communist with nationalistic sympathies” may indeed have validity.

A Traveller and the Road by Mohit Sen is a narrative of the vast experience of the people of India and of thousands of young women and men both within and outside the Communist Party who had no other ambition but the well-being of its people. His personal life is woven in this mosaic. Mohit Sen was born on March 24, 1929 in Calcutta. He died in his sleep in his Somajiguda residence in Hyderabad on May 3, 2003. A Traveller and the Road was released three days earlier on May 1, 2003 and passages from the book were read by members of the Little Theatre, Hyderabad in the presence of Mohit Sen; the passages represented the three phases of the memoir, which Vithal Rajan characterised as “a rare and restrained glimpse into the personal life of the author”, “the inner party struggle of CPI”, and “the destalinisation era, the split in the communist movement”. Mohit Sen regretted that only A B Bardhan among the communist leaders attended the book launch in Delhi. Vanaja Iyengar, his wife, died at the age of 75 on December 23, 2000 while undergoing cardiac surgery, also in Hyderabad. From the book it is more than apparent that their deep love for each other from the time they first met till they departed never waned. This was possible since the two were not only lovers but also comrade-in-arms travelling the same road.



Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

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