[For Dr.DMR Sekhar]
MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts
Introduction and Overview
Several years back, I posted an article about Mahapandita Rahula Sankrityayana (1893–1963) one of the stormy petrels of India’s recent past; the restless drifter who from the Vedic Arya Samaj moved into Buddhism, then leaped on to communism and back again to Buddhism.
I had written, in fair detail, about his travels in Tibet collecting copies of ancient texts; his association with the Communism and setting up the Communist Party of Bihar ; his Party work in Russia; his expulsion from the Communist Party and the USSR following his differences with Josef Stalin; and on his eventual disillusionment with Communism. On his return to India, he resumed his Buddhist work. He again took to travel ; and, visited Sri Lanka (where he taught Sanskrit), Japan, Korea, China, and Manchuria. He saw a fire temple in Baku and discovered an inscription in Devanagari script. From there he went to Tehran, Shiraz and Baluchistan and finally returned to India.
During his life-time Sankrityayana wrote about one-hundred-and-fifty books and dissertations covering a variety of subjects. Apart from travelogues, he wrote extensively on a range of subjects such as sociology, history, philosophy, Buddhism, Tibetology, lexicography, grammar, textual editing, folklore, science, drama, and politics. He also produced two huge dictionaries, one Tibetan – Sanskrit; and the other Russian – Sanskrit. He prepared a glossary of Hindi terms for administrative use. He also collected and wrote about the ecstatic songs (Doha) in Apabramsha dialect spoken by the eccentric Siddha saints of Bihar and Bengal.
In that context, I had mentioned, in passing, his similarities with MN Roy, another stormy petrel of India, the son of a village teacher who meteoroed into an intellectual at the international level ; who traveled across the globe ; participated in , as also influenced the growth and spread of communism in various parts of the world; and, who wrote a large number of books on politics, political philosophy, sociology, history etc.
In many ways; the life-events of Sankrityayana and Roy were similar. Both were brilliant intellectuals, great travelers, versatile linguists and voracious writers. Both coming from orthodox middle class families, started as ardent Nationalists with a burning zeal to secure India’s freedom; both came into contact with Marxist principles rather incidentally; both grew into ardent communists working actively along with eminent leaders of the party in USSR; later, both were disillusioned with Communist regimes in USSR; both incurred the displeasure of Stalin; and predictably, both were promptly expelled from the party. Both, in their later years, grew into philosophers and thinkers. Both married western women, settled down in India; and, died while in India.
[Although Sankrityayana and Roy both incurred the wrath of Joseph Stalin they could, yet, said to be fortunate. While Sankrityayana was exiled, Roy lingered on the outer fringe of the Central Party for sometime, before he was expelled. He eventually returned to India.
But, the other Indian Left intellectuals –Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (brother of the well known freedom fighter and poetess Sarojani Naidu) and Abaninath Mukherjee one of the co-founders (along with Roy and Evelyn Trent) of the Indian Communist Party launched from Tashkent in 1921 — were not so lucky. Their disagreement with Joseph Stalin made them victims of the Great Purge. Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was arrested on in July 1937; and , was executed on 2 September 1937. And, Abaninath Mukherjee was arrested in June 1937 ; and, was executed by the firing squad on 28 October 1937.]
I share with DR. DMR Sekhar, a special fascination for the life and thoughts of MN Roy. He, undoubtedly, is without a peer in the present era. There is hardly anyone comparable to Roy. His approach to politics, philosophy and life was much different. He led an adventurous and eventful life; and, his experience was vast. Roy’s intellectual odyssey took him from militant Hindu nationalist to communist and then on to radical democrat and humanist. MN Roy could be described as a global Indian and an international communist positioned between the German Opposition communist fringe and Soviet orthodoxy; and, between the Indian National Congress and Radical Socialism; and , a sustained critique of Gandhian notions of Brahmacharya, ascetic ideals and food-culture. His thoughts were quite original. He adopted unorthodox means of separating religion from philosophy for realizing his ideals.
And yet he was not a mass-leader. Towards the end of his life, he was a lonely person. He was a sort of romantic who envisioned, with hope, that ‘Man has created something great and is destined to create something greater’. He had the courage of conviction and honesty of ideas to stand alone amidst hostile criticism.
I wondered; it is strange that such fiery figures- like Roy and Sankrityayana – have almost disappeared from scenes of the present-day-world. No longer do you come across, either in India or anywhere else, such colorful, rebellious, brilliant and larger-than life intellectual personalities, passionate about their beliefs, living and spreading their influence in various parts of the globe at an enormous risk to their person and to their acceptance in organized groups.
The rarity of such intellectual odysseys bordering on adventurism in the present times may perhaps have a lot to do with the ephemeral nature of things and the depleted sense of values of the world we live in, dominated by faceless corporations chasing after virtual curves on electronic screens, week after week . Even the leaders of the so-called revolutionary parties, bereft of commitment to their original principles, have gone soft, corrupt and rotting from within.
Dr. DMR Sekhar, the Scholar Scientist, had then inquired whether I had written about MN Roy. I had by then written, briefly, some pages about MN Roy’s views on political structures, economic theories as also about his views on religion, philosophy, science and their inter relations. But, I had not written much either about his life-events or about his intellectual life; especially, about the later part of his life. However, the thoughts about MN Roy had been floating around in my mind whenever questions on history, religion, democracy etc; and, particularly those about Humanism came up in one context or the other.
I was drawn to MN Roy as he was a multifaceted personality: a revolutionary, political activist and theoretician and a philosopher-thinker whose sphere of influence spread beyond India into far distant lands. I was fascinated by his thoughts on the relationships, as he saw, between philosophy and religion; philosophy and science.
The task of philosophy , according to him is not merely “to know things as they are and to find the common origin of the diverse phenomena of nature and, nature itself; to understand Man and his Universe…To explain existence as a whole”; “but, more importantly, it is its power or the force to change and reform the world we live in, for a much better place where all can live with freedom and dignity”.
This was in contrast to the Indian perception of philosophy as a means to attain liberation from the earthly coils which hold back Man from his true destiny .
As regards Religion, Roy thought that “Faith in the super-natural does not permit true understanding of the nature of the Universe. Therefore, rejection of orthodox religious ideas and theological dogmas is an essential precondition for philosophy”. He was highly appreciative of democratic and egalitarian character of Islam and Islamic teachings. However, when he lauded the role of Islam, I wonder, had been alive today whether he would have continued to hold such views.
Roy grasped the intimate relationship between science and philosophy. With the ascendancy of science, he said, philosophy can now exist only as ‘the science of sciences — a systematic coordination, a synthesis of all positive knowledge’.
I realize I do not have much time left ahead of me. Before it is too late, let me dwell briefly on one of our forgotten heroes who I wish had lived a little longer and been little more active in his later life. Perhaps his active and involved presence could have brought sanity, in some measure, into the course of events that overtook India and Bengal in particular. On Roy’s death (Jan 25, 1954), the Socialist Leader Jayaprakash Narayan (11 October 1902 – 8 October 1979) wrote: Roy was perhaps never more needed than just when he died.
I propose to write a series of articles touching , in main, upon his early life adventurous events, his busy career in Mexico , USSR and China as a Marxist intellect and theoretician ; his contacts with the other leftist intellectuals while wandering adrift in the west; his association with the western women engaged in Leftist movement and the freedom movement of India; his involvement in developing and guiding the communist , trade union and peasant movements in India; his attempts to indirectly influence the Freedom movement in India and the economic programs of the Indian National Congress; and, his prison years followed by his political career in Indian National Congress. I would also try to discuss his ideas on politics, philosophy, religion, history and science, as reflected in the vast body of his works.
[ I have tried to use the life-story of MN Roy as a sort of thread to talk about the series of changes or developments that overtook India, ranging over diverse phases of extreme nationalism; socialism; colonial rule; and parliamentary democracy. Roy’s life-events also help to chronicle the national movement for freedom of India, sphere-headed by the Indian National Congress but involving number of other parties and groups operating from within and outside India; as also the birth, development and decay of communism in India . Roy’s concern for the Post-Independence India away from the steamrolling Communist dictatorship and away from the corrupt parliamentary system of party politics ; and, his Plans for Economic Development of India and the Draft Constitution of Free India ; his vision for a party-less , country-wide network of Peoples’ Committees having wide powers such as initiating legislation, expressing opinions on pending Bills, recalling representatives and referendum on important national issues etc are truly interesting and very relevant to the times we live-in. They indeed could serve as pointers to our future world-view. ]
I trust this will find at least a handful of avid readers.
Compared to Sankrityayana, Roy led a more varied and a more adventurous life. He started as a starry-eyed nationalist revolutionary believing in violence (in the present-day terms, ‘a terrorist’) wandering across the Far East in search of German arms and fund to fight the British in India. That search for German arms led Roy on to the West coast of the United States of America where he came in contact with Socialists and also the theories of Karl Marx.
But, it was in Mexico that Roy underwent a thorough transformation from a conservative nationalist to cosmopolitan Communist believing staunchly in the Marxist doctrine. Roy soon emerged as an acknowledged authority on Marxian doctrine. And, he worked closely with the esteemed international leaders of the Bolshevik movement and Communist Party at its highest level , such as Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky , Bukharin , Borodin and others , who later became legendary figures. While in the company of the elite of the International communist movement, Roy was closely associated in drafting its policies and its working methods
Roy became the founder member of the Communist Party of India in 1920 at Tashkent; and, was also the Chief Adviser of the Communist Party of China. He, earlier to that, had come in contact with Dr. Sun Yat Sen , Chiang Kai Shek and Ho Chin min (who was , at one time, a student of Roy at Moscow) and later with Mao Tse-tung.
After the exit of his mentor, Lenin, Roy was sidelined in the Communist party following his disagreements with Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the USSR. Roy was further distraught and dismayed as Stalin went on to systematically liquidate the old-guards of the Bolshevik movement and his comrades in the Party, one after the other. He was particularly saddened by the expulsion and execution of Bukharin, considered as the brain behind Lenin. Roy wrote articles in the German Communist–Opposition-leader Thalheimer‘s journal criticizing Russia’s foreign policy, which angered the Stalin group. And, Roy was promptly expelled from the Party.
Roy returned to India in 1930 (after about fifteen years) knowing full well of the grave risks it involved. He was arrested and thrown into prison for six years on the charges that were framed against him in 1924, while he was away from India. After release from Jail, Roy became a member of the Indian National Congress; and worked closely with Nehru, Subash Bose, JP Narayan and other leaders. And, he also had differences with Gandhi and the right-wing of Congress.
During those four years in Congress, Roy tried to radicalize the Congress; and, turn it into a United Front or a common platform for all shades and sections of the Indian politics, coming together in the struggle for attaining political and economic Independence of India. He, of course, failed thoroughly. And, finally, he was asked to resign from Congress. Disillusioned with traditional politics, Roy turned into a political philosopher.
The later years of his life brought about his transition from one who believed in Marxism to the one who advocated ‘integral scientific humanism’ ; and , then he went on to formulate Radical Democracy, which he put forth as the guiding philosophy of decentralized ‘radical democracy’ that could serve as an alternative to parliamentary democracy, after rejecting both communism and capitalism .
The Radical Democracy as conceived by Roy is a highly decentralized system of democracy based on net-work of groups of people through which citizens wield an effective democratic control over the State.
And then came his New Humanism or Radical Humanism; it is radical because it rejected many of the traditional political and philosophical assumptions, and its ‘humanism’ is because of its focus entirely on the needs and situation of human beings. The Radical Humanism which is neither materialism, nor idealism, but a scientific philosophy, insisting upon the freedom of the individual brought in a new dimension to political philosophy.
As Kanta Katatia explains in M N Roy’s conception of New Humanism :
Humanism is derived from the Latin word Humanus, meaning a system of thought concerned with human affairs in general . Humanism is an attitude which attaches primary importance to Man and his faculties, affairs and aspirations . Humanism had to pass through a process of development and change , but its main idea was that Man must remain the supreme being. Humanism means respect for man as Man and not only because of his individual achievements. The essence of Humanism is the importance placed on human being , the individual as the center of all aspirations of human activities. And, there should no dogmatic authority over life and thought.
Humanism must be an ethical philosophy. It must insist that Man alone is responsible for what he is. Human values in the last analysis must be human; and must keep pace with the growth of Man , his knowledge about nature and himself .
The critics of Humanism maintain that it is a kind of Utopia. But, Roy insists it is not an abstract philosophy or theory; but, is a set of principles which are relevant to all aspects of human life including the social existence. It is not a closed system; but it grows and evolves with development of human knowledge and with Man’s experiences in life.
Roy’s ideas , just as the traditions of India, are a series of changes while maintaining continuity. India had always prominently figured in every phase of Roy’s revolutionary, political and intellectual life, no matter whether he was in India or outside of it or even in prison. In order to understand Roy’s mature phase of thought concerning humanism etc., it might be necessary to learn of the nature and evolution of his earlier ideas.
At least four phases of Roy’s life and thoughts may be seen distinctly.
The first of these began at the turn of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, with Roy as a young terrorist inspired by patriotic zeal under the guidance of his hero Jatin Mukherjee. That phase ended with his conversion to Marxism in 1919 under the tutelage of Mikhail Markovich Borodin when the two came together in Mexico.
The second phase of his life and thinking covers his eminent career in the Communist Party (1919-1929) . That phase began in Mexico and ended with his expulsion from the Communist Party in December 1929.
The third phase began with his return to India in 1930 and his imprisonment for six years commencing from 1931; his brief flirtation with Indian National Congress for four years ( 1936-1940) ; and his subsequent formation of the Radical Democratic Party (RDP) as an alternative to Congress and the Communist Parties.
The final phase of his life, till his death in 1954, was that of a philosopher expounding principles of Humanism and launching the Humanist Movement.
Ellen Roy (MN Roy’s wife) explained:
It should not be thought that the phases mentioned above were sharply separated from one another or that there were any violent mutations in life. Rather, they led logically and naturally from one to another; and were but stages in a process of organic growth and development. Roy never disowned his past; and to the end he acknowledged Jatin Mukherjee and Karl Marx as his guides and mentors – next in importance only to the greatest mentor of all, life itself
Ever testing his thoughts in the light of his experiences and chastening his experiences in the crucible of reason , he moved from terrorism to virulent Nationalism to Marxism and Communism , then on to Radical Humanism ; he moved from formal democracy to humanist democracy in action; from internationalism to cosmopolitanism . He blazed a new trial for those yet to tread the long path.
Freedom for Roy was a huge concept. He did not equate freedom either with national Independence or with cession of oppression. It was a progressive disappearance of all that binds an individual and restricts his innate immense potential as a human being”.
In the wealth of experiences that went into shaping his thoughts and outlook later in his life, he was truly unique; and, in one lifetime he lived the lives of many, spread across three continents and a dozen countries. Although these stages are distinctly marked, they run along a continuum like a thread, in the organic growth of his thought process.
Throughout his life Roy had pursued the quest for human freedom. He wrote:
“when as a schoolboy of about fourteen I began my political life, which may end in nothing. I always wanted to be free. In those days we had not read of Marx; we did not know the meaning of proletariat; we were not aware of class struggle; nor were we intent on realizing an ism. And still, there was a vague desire or hunger for freedom; and an urge to revolt against the intolerable conditions of life. We did not know exactly how the conditions could be changed. I began my life with that dream and spirit; and I still draw my inspiration from that spirit, in search of that elusive freedom many spent years in jail and went to gallows, than from the three volumes Capital or the three hundred volumes of the Marxists”( New Orientation, 1946 , p.183)
Roy took to Marxism because it appeared to be the right philosophy that could change the world for better. To Roy, Marxism appealed as a more convincing explanation for his innate desire for freedom. The driving force of his Marxism was his Humanism. Freedom for him was not an abstract ideal but something that has to be lived and experienced by each individual.
While in the Comintern, Roy learnt and witnessed that Marxism in theory was quite different from Marxism in practice. Roy could not agree with a system that survives and thrives on oppression, under a dictatorship in the grab of democracy – as was the case in Russia under Stalin. He could not compromise with the new developments in the Stalin era, which degenerated into an instrument of enslavement of Man. And, that marked his breakaway from Communism as it was then practiced in Russia.
Roy returned to India, to participate , directly , in the Indian National movement. Soon after he landed in India, Roy was imprisoned for almost six years. The prison experience had a most profound impact upon his thoughts. Just as Aurobindo, Nehru and Philip Spratt; during his isolation in the prison , Roy also had ’ all his sensitivity in a continuous state of tension’ ; and, experienced the effect of a ‘psychological hothouse’, where one tends to overwhelmingly brood , leading to ‘ concentration of emotion upon itself’. Roy’s deep introspection led him to different modes and forms of thoughts.
Roy did not experience a ‘mystical revelation’’ as did Sri Aurobindo; yet, he was a different person after release from prison. There was a marked change in Roy’s thought, personality and general approach to life.
After his release, he began to discover the limitations of Marxism; and, the needs to ‘revise certain fundamental conceptions of classical Materialism’. He began to ponder over application of Marxism with special reference to India: ‘the modern Marxist cannot literally follow the line predicted by Marx. We cannot say that developments in India must necessarily follow the same line as Marx predicted for European developments’.
Roy came to believe that India needs a philosophical revolution; and, that without a philosophical revolution, no social revolution is possible. That was a clear departure from Marxism. He recognized the present predicament of modern society as a moral crisis that desperately needs a complete reorientation of social philosophy and political theories. He was convinced what India needed for its full and healthy development was a Party-less system with abiding values of humanity; and, moved by the ideal of human freedom. Freedom , according to him, was the ultimate reality in human life; it defines and qualifies every other human experience. “Call this an idealistic deviation, if you please” he said “I would plead guilty to the charge”.
In the subsequent elaboration of his idea of freedom, he projected it as a sort of spiritual freedom — the ultimate value of radical humanism and the key motivating force of human actions.
When he was in the Indian National Congress, he was disappointed to discover that it hardly was a democratic body. The right-wing of the Congress led by Gandhi throttled every other shade of view and opinion. Roy disagreed with Gandhi on several fundamental issues. Gandhi advised his followers to completely ignore Roy as if he did not exist politically; for, Roy appeared to him too dangerous a man even to be criticized. And, when Roy tried to push through his radical ideas, Gandhi bitingly advised him to stay out of Indian politics, and just “render mute service to the cause of Indian freedom.” Roy’s views were turned down every time; and, eventually he was asked to resign from the Party.
Roy’s main critique of Gandhi , as a leader of Congress , was that he and his inner circle imposed their tactics from above on the rank and file; and, that they had turned Congress Working Committee into an “authoritarian dictatorial” ‘High-Command’ of Gandhi’s handpicked followers . Roy found it akin to the inner working coterie of the Comintern. Roy kept asking: Why is it that Gandhi did not like to consult people outside his circle, even when intellectuals including his friends advised him to do so? Why did Gandhi summarily reject such advice?
Roy also could not appreciate Gandhi’s views on celibacy (Brahmacharya), shunning alcohol, and advocating total non-violence. Gandhi’s stand on un-touchability, according to Roy, was also suspect (this was also the view of Dr. Ambedkar). Roy remarked that sermons might have some propaganda value; but beyond that they hardy were of any use. Roy pointed out that Gandhi’s programs of similar nature were, basically, verbal, couched in sentiments rather than effective programs involving masses and appealing to their immediate interests.
As regards untouchability, what was required, he said, was ‘constant campaign coupled with modes and changes in personal relationships by challenging unhealthy prejudices’.
He was also against Gandhi’s insistence of compulsory Charka (home-spun) movement. Roy pointed out that ‘sentiments can keep a movement going for a certain limited length of time, but it cannot last longer unless fed with more substantial factors’. Gandhi’s Charka movement, Roy observed, was based on hollow economic logic; it was not economically viable; and , therefore Charka’s fate was sealed.
Roy also did not agree with Gandhi’s theory of ‘Trusteeship’; he said, it was neither realistic nor practical. Capitalism, he said, will not collapse because of the sentiments; but, will fall because of its own contradictions.
He attached greater importance to individual and his liberty. He envisaged a system of governance in which the individual citizen would exercise effective control over the people‘s representatives controlling the machinery of the state.
Roy rejected both Communism and capitalism; and, put forth a philosophy of decentralized Radical Democracy as an alternative to Parliamentary Democracy. He also rejected both the state ownership as well as unbridled capitalism, as being destructive to democracy. He believed that economic democracy would be suffocated if there is no political democracy. The truly democratic economic order can only be built around the principle of co-operation where there is also the participation of workers as co-owners
He said: “the defects of a parliamentary democracy result from uncontrolled delegation of power. To make the democracy effective and functional , the real power must always vest in the people ; and there must be ways and means for the people to wield their power not once in a five years or periodically but on a day to basis” (New Humanism p.55)
Roy’s most important prediction was that the Parliamentary form of Democracy in India would breed corruption. His lecture to the University Institute in Calcutta on February 5, 1950 warned of this.
“The future of Indian democracy is not very bright, and that is not due to the evil intentions on the part of politicians, but rather the system of party politics. Perhaps in another Ten years, demagogy will vitiate political practice. The scramble for power will continue, breeding corruption, caste-ism and inefficiency. People engaged in politics cannot take a long view. Laying foundations is a long process for them; they want a short-cut. The short-cut to power is always to make greater promises than others, to promise things without the competence or even the intention to implement them.”
In another lecture on January 30, 1947, also at Calcutta, Roy had said:
“When political power is concentrated in the hands of a small community, you may have a facade of parliamentary democracy, but for all political purposes it will be a dictatorship, even if it may be paternal and benevolent.”
“To make democracy effective power must always remain invested in the people – not periodically, but from day to day. Atomized individuals are powerless for all practical purposes”
At the same time , he was cautious and conceded that it was too early for the Indian common men to understand the meaning and value of participatory democracy propagated by him because they were ’ seeped in the feudal tradition of monarchic hierarchy as well as in the customs of a religious patriarchal society’.
Roy advanced the idea of a new social order based on direct participation of the people through People’s Committees and Gram Sabhas. Its culture would be based in minimum control and maximum scope for scientific and creative activities. The new society of India that Roy envisioned was a democratic, political, economic, as well as cultural, entity with the freedom of the individual as its core.
Roy, thus, envisaged formation of people’s local cooperative organizations as the nuclei of a new system of economy. He was convinced of the innate goodness and dignity of man.
[Prof. Sunil Khilani , in the introduction to the 2012 edition of his The Idea of India (Penguin , 2013) writes:
Although the founders saw political freedom as their great goal, decades on, what that freedom has delivered measures up poorly for many. For India’s business leaders eager to compete with China, for the middle classes who are fed up by corruption, for radicalisant intellectuals, for desperate citizens who have taken up arms against the state, democracy in India is a story of deflating illusions, of obstacles and oppression. Democratic politics itself is seen as impeding the decisive action needed to expand economic possibilities
It’s a troubling irony: political imagination, judgement, and action – the capacities that first brought India it into existence – seem to have deserted both the air-conditioned hallways of power as well as the dusty streets of protest, just when India needs them. The distinctive source of modern India’s legitimacy has, to many, become an agent of the country’s ills.
Democracy’s singular, rather astonishing achievement has been to keep India united as a political space. And now that space has become a vast market whose strength lies in its internal diversity and dynamism. It’s a market considerably attractive to global capital, and one that makes India a potential engine of the global economy.
The idea of India is not homogenous and univocal. In fact, no single idea can possibly hope to capture the many energies, angers, and hopes of one billion Indians; nor can any more narrow ideas – based on a single trait – fulfil their desires. It may seem obtuse, even hubristic, in these circumstances, to speak of the idea of India. But one purpose of my book is to excavate the conception that provided the intellectual and practical underpinnings of modern India, that gave it its distinctive identity over the past half-century, and that kept it, unlike so many other new states, democratic, tolerant, and open-minded. Of the many possible ideas of India, The Idea of India makes the case for one in particular, because it is the only one that can enable other ideas to emerge, and allow them to learn to live alongside one another.]
MN Roy was perhaps among the earliest few to realize the dangers of Marxism on one side and the inadequacies of Parliamentary Democracy on the other. He recognized the need for a new kind of socio-economic philosophy, a practical-theory of life (not speculation) that is guided by humanism which would re-organize social life. By humanism he meant respect for man as Man; and, essentially, where the individual is at the center of all spheres of human activities (unlike in Marxism).
Marx had said that a good society is necessary to have good individuals. Roy, on the other hand, asserted ’it is important to have good individuals to have a good society’. His main concern, as he said, was freedom for himself and for all others. His dream was’ to make every Indian realize her/his human dignity and make her/his own destiny’. And for that, he said, they will have to give up many of the traditional beliefs that tie them down; but, to develop a ‘liberating philosophy of life’.
MN Roy maintained that a philosophical revolution must precede a social revolution. Although his critics pointed out that his New Humanism was ethereal and Utopian, he asserted that it was a flexible philosophical structure that has relevance to all branches of human life and existence.
In 1944, Roy and his associates had drafted, with great dedication and hard work , two basic documents, namely, People’ s Plan for Economic Development of India and the Draft Constitution of Free India. These documents contained Roy’s original contributions to the solution of the country’s economic and political problems.
In the Draft Constitution that Roy proposed, the Indian State was to be organized on the basis of country-wide network of Peoples’ Committees having wide powers such as initiating legislations, expressing opinions on pending Bills, recalling representatives and referendum on important national issues.
He strongly believed that the greatest good of the greatest number can be attained only when members of the government are accountable in the first place to their respective conscience . He , therefore, urged for direct elections for the post of State Governors. He advocated election to be held on non-party basis to form Constituent Assembly, which would frame the constitution of Independent India on a federal basis. He had also built in safety measures , like fixing accountability on the elected representatives; and the power to re-call the erring such elected members. But, his Draft Constitution for Free India was conveniently assigned to the dustbin.
He paid a heavy price, without regret or rancor, for his uncompromising stand on various social, national and international problems. He remained something of an enigma even in the Leftist political history. Although he had fought for India’s independence, in his own manner, his contribution was never recognized. He was sidelined even by his former colleagues and mates. He came to be viewed more as a critic than as a constructive partner. It was pointed out that he analyzed various elements of thought in great detail; but, at the end, failed to come up with an integrated system or plan that would work.
The sort of Independence that India gained and the truncated look of ‘free-India’ , sliced into pieces based on religion, sorely disappointed Roy. He was hurt disillusioned and isolated. His political activity came to an end as India crawled towards freedom in the dead of a dark night.
Roy is said to have remarked: I am not quite satisfied any longer with political activities. I can now do other work according to my inclinations…I feel my leaving the party will be good for me and to the party.
His later years were spent in writing series of Books on various political and social issues as also on the events in Marxist history. These writings show that Roy was not satisfied with a primarily economic explanation of historical processes. He studied and tried to assess the role of cultural and ideological factors in traditional and contemporary India. Roy tried to reformulate materialism in the light of latest developments in the physical and biological sciences. He was convinced that without the growth and development of a materialist and rationalist outlook in India, neither a renaissance nor a democratic revolution would be possible. He attempted his Memoir; but , could not complete it. He became engaged in educating the young and in spreading the message of New Humanism across the world.
And, towards the end of his life, Roy grew rather indifferent to either fame or success. The long years of self-exile stretching over fifteen years followed by incarceration for six years had distanced him from the ground realities of the volatile India, which through its varied conflicting ways was struggling to assert itself. He was isolated in more than one sense.
The reasons for his isolation could be many. He was away from India for about fifteen years; and, thereafter , was behind bars for six years. During these long years, Roy had lost direct contact with the ordinary people of India. He communicated with his followers through his writings. And, in the political circumstances of his period, his ideas went beyond a certain class of people and did not percolate to the masses. The language of his ideas and theories was such that it would not appeal to common man.
Another reason could be that, in India, he did not enjoy the benefit of support from any major political party or group. Though he was in the Indian National Congress for a period of four years, he could not get on well with its leaders (Gandhi in particular); and, could not agree with its approach to major problems and issues ( such as the support or otherwise to the British during the second War). As regards the Communist Party with which he was associated closely for a considerable period, he no longer had any association with it after he was expelled from the Party in 1929. And, the Indian communist party under the aegis of Joseph Stalin was markedly hostile to him. As regards the other socialist groups they were scattered and ill organized; and, had no effective leadership.
In the later years, MN Roy did not remain a man of action. He was engaged in writing and developing streams of thoughts on politics, history, social development, modern crisis in human affairs, science, economics , schemes for world peace and organization and such other subjects.
He also did not get an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Since his later theories of humanism and individual freedom seemed to be tinged with idealism, many including the political activists took it as rather utopian or simply daydreaming.
[ Ho Chi Minh , who was at one time Roy’s student in Moscow, successfully put into practice Roy’s theory of turning the national struggle into a social revolution, with the Communist Party in the lead. And, that was exactly the kind of movement in India , and the kind relationship between the Indian National movement and the Indian National Congress that Roy had been advocating all along. Ho Chi Minh got the opportunity and Roy did not. And , that made all the difference ]
M N Roy the person who always looked ahead did not fail to foresee his own bleak future. He had admitted long before, that he was practically doomed to fail, because he was ‘politically isolated’ in India. He had, however, the conviction that his isolation was indeed the isolation of pioneers, which might not be pleasant but ‘historically necessary’. Roy exhorted his followers to have ‘the courage of pioneering’. Like Sri Aurobindo who was an extremist in politics and later chose to be a philosopher; Roy too seemed to have lost interest in traditional politics; and , with the dawn of Independence he emerged wholly as a political philosopher.
While Roy and his wife Ellen were resting in the hill station of Mussoorie, Roy met with a serious accident on June 11 1952. He fell fifty feet down while walking along a hill track. He was moved to Dehra Dun for treatment. On the 25th of August, he had an attack of cerebral thrombosis resulting in a partial paralysis of the right side. The accident prevented the Roys’ from attending the inaugural congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) , which was held in August 1952 at Amsterdam. The congress, however, elected M.N. Roy, in absentia, as one of its Vice-Presidents and made the Indian Radical Humanist Movement one of the founder members of the IHEU.
On August 15 1953, Roy had the second attack of cerebral thrombosis, which paralyzed the left side of his body. Roy’s last article dictated to Ellen Roy for the periodical Radical Humanist was about the nature and organization of the Radical Humanist Movement. This article was published in the Radical Humanist on 24 January 1954. On January 25 1954, ten minutes before midnight, M.N. Roy died of a heart attack. He was nearly 67 at that time.
The Amrita Bazaar Patrika in its obituary described him as the ‘lonely lion who roamed about the wilderness called the world’.
Roy was not a successful person in the ordinary sense of the term, as Samaren Roy writes, by the time he died in January 1954, he was a forgotten man , sitting alone at the edge ; and , looking into the unknown.
About twenty years after the demise of M N Roy, that is in 1974, the Socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan tried to revive ideas outlined in Roy’s Draft Constitution of Free India . Narayan in his program of ‘Total Revolution’ talked of forming ‘People’s Committees’ at the grass-root level, giving them power to legislate, opine and vote on issues of personal and national importance as well as to recall the erring members of legislatures, thus, tempering political parties. Though he could arouse the curiosity of the youth and generate some debate, Narayan could not win the Election. The power politics of Congress took charge again.
Roy and Narayan had somewhat similar political background. Both had at one time affinity with Communism; and both had later rejected Communism and Nationalism. For them, Marxism remained an ideal; but, one that was not practiced in its purity anywhere in the world. Both tried to overcome in their revised programs the noteworthy defects of Marxism in theory and in practice. Following that, both had a short association with the Indian National Congress. And, both were sorely disappointed with its lack of internal democracy and a broad vision for the future ; and, when they tried to put forward their views , they were virtually driven out of the party.
Both Roy and Narayan placed the individual and his freedom at the core of their programs. But, the emphasis of each differed.
While Narayan’s concept of Radical Democracy revolved around popular movements of the Communities at the grass-roots level, Roy’s concept rested on individuals at grass-roots politics.
The experts point out that each of those programs, by itself, is incomplete. And, both their programs do not give adequate credit to the crucial and un-avoidable role of the State. And both placed undue or excessive faith in the persuasive force of moral and intellectual elite; and, therefore, have an amorphous or nebulous unrealistic air about them. Both seemed to have taken for granted the liberal notions of equality and liberty.
Though the Radical Humanism and Total Revolution were well meant, rising idealistic visions of the importance of the individual , they could not stand up to the challenges of the powerful Party politics of the Present-day India. Total Revolution and Radical Humanism were very quickly cast aside. That is very sad.
[Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979) returned to India from the US, in late 1929 as a Marxist. And soon after that, he joined the Indian National Congress at the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru. Mahatma Gandhi became his mentor in the Congress. During the Indian independence movement he was arrested and jailed several times, particularly during the Quit India movement of 1942. Upon release, he took a leading part in the formation of the Congress Socialist Party, a left-wing group within the Congress Party. In 1946, he tried to persuade the Congress leaders to adopt a more militant policy against British rule.
After independence, Pundit Nehru offered Jayaprakash Narayan the post of a minister in the Union Cabinet; but, he refused the offer preferring to walk along the socialist path of nation-building.
In 1948, Jayaprakash Narayan, together with most of the Congress Socialists, left the Congress Party; and, in 1952 formed the Praja Socialist Party (PSP). But again, he became dissatisfied with party politics; and, announced in 1954 that he would thenceforth devote his life exclusively to the Bhoodan Yajna Movement, founded by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, which aimed to distribute land gifted by the rich among the landless.
In 1959, Jayaprakash Narayan, following the idealism of M N Roy, in an attempt to find an alternative to the modem state, argued for a ‘reconstruction of Indian polity’ as a ‘party-less democracy,’ with decentralization of power, village autonomy and a more representative legislature, by means of a four-tier hierarchy of village, district, state, and union councils. He advocated a program of social transformation which he termed Sampoorna kraanti,’ total revolution’.
In the mid1970s, he led a student -movement against government corruption in Bihar. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promptly branded Narayan a reactionary fascist. And, after the Allahabad High Court found Indira Gandhi guilty of violating electoral laws, Narayan called upon her to resign. Instead, Gandhi, immediately, proclaimed a National Emergency on the midnight of 25 June 1975. Narayan, the 600 other opposition leaders, and dissenting members of her own party (the ‘Young Turks’) were arrested that day.
Narayan was detained at Chandigarh Jail even after he asked for one month parole to mobilise relief in flooded parts of Bihar. After five months in prison, his health broke down; and, suddenly deteriorated on 24 October 1975, and he was released on 12 November 1975. The diagnosis at Jaslok Hospital, Bombay, revealed kidney failure; he would be on dialysis for the rest of his life. He never regained his health.
In 1977, Narayan led united opposition forces; and, Indira Gandhi was defeated in that very crucial election. Then, Narayan advised the victorious Janata party in its choice of leaders to head the new administration.
Jayaprakash Narayan popularly referred to as JP or Lok Nayak succumbed to the ill effects of diabetes and of heart ailments; and, died in Patna, Bihar, on 8 October 1979, three days before his 78th birthday.]
While everywhere multitudes cried for bread, the leaders of the nation made a great feast and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, and of iron.
In the same hour, came forth five fingers of a hand and wrote on the wall; and the leaders of the nation saw a part of the hand that wrote.
Then their countenances were changed and their thoughts troubled them.
The leaders of the nation cried aloud to bring in the astrologers and the soothsayers.
Then came in all the wise men; but, they could not read the writing, nor make known to the leaders of the nation the interpretation thereof.
And no one with light and understanding and excellent wisdom could be found to read the writing; and, make known the interpretation and dissolve the doubts.
- VED MEHTA, 1970
Beginning with the Next Part, let’s look into the life-events of M N Roy; and at the end let’s get to learn about his philosophical thoughts.
Let’s start with his Early Years, in Part Two.
Sources and References
- M N Roy by V B Karnik
- M N Roy – A Political Biography by Samaren Roy
- The Political Thoughts of M N Roy by KS Bharathi
- Marxism and Beyond in Indian political thought: J. P. Narayan and m. N. Roy’s concepts of radical democracy by Eva-Maria Nag
- M N Roy’s New Humanism and Materialism by Ramendra Nath
- M N Roy’s conception of New Humanism by Kanta Katatia
- Many pages of Wikipedia
Illustrations are taken from Internet
January 12, 2016 at 3:46 pm
MN Roy is a great visionary.
So much truth, when he said: “Roy’s most important prediction was that the Parliamentary form of Democracy in India would breed corruption. His lecture to the University Institute in Calcutta on February 5, 1950 warned of this. “The future of Indian democracy is not very bright, and that is not due to the evil intentions on the part of politicians, but rather the system of party politics. Perhaps in another Ten years, demagogy will vitiate political practice. The scramble for power will continue, breeding corruption, casteism and inefficiency. People engaged in politics cannot take a long view. Laying foundations is a long process for them; they want a short-cut. The short-cut to power is always to make greater promises than others, to promise things without the competence or even the intention to implement them.”
January 12, 2016 at 4:02 pm
Dear Shri Sekhar
I had you in my mind even nefore I started on this series
Please read the rest of the series
I would be more interested in your response to Roy’s interaction with Lenin and later with Indian National Congress
There is also much about history of Communist Party n India
These will follow in due time
Thanks for reading
January 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm
I got this web site from my pal who shared with me on the
topic of this web site and now this time I am browsing this website and
reading very informative articles at this time.
January 15, 2016 at 9:45 am
You are welcome
Please read the other parts and other articles as well
January 14, 2016 at 9:54 pm
I read this piece of writing completely regarding the difference of latest and preceding technologies, it’s remarkable article.
January 15, 2016 at 9:44 am
Please read the other parts as also the other articles.
November 5, 2017 at 1:33 am
Sougoumar Mayoura ( Mr)
November 4, 2017 at 8:17 pm
I discovered your site by reading a series of articles on M.N.ROY. I heard about him- many years ago- during my studies in law and political science. But I did not go beyond that. I see today how this man who is not so well known in the West (I am talking about intellectuals), was ahead of the question of the crisis of democracy. But I come back to you. Your blog is awesome. His wealth impresses me. A life would not be enough to read all the information of your blog. BRAVO and good luck.
November 5, 2017 at 3:17 am
Dear Mr. Sougoumar Mayoura
Thank you for the visit; and, for the appreciation.
I presume you read all the parts (23 in all) of the series. If not, kindly take your time; do read; and, let me know of your views. The comments and observations coming from an erudite scholar like you are truly valuable to me.
As you rightly said, he is not much known or remembered in the West; and similar is the case in the East, particularly in India.
I find the life-events of MN Roy particularly interesting, because they run through all the phases of Indian National Movement since the early 20th century up to the formation of Indian Republic. They also chronicle the birth, growth and decay of the Communist Party of India. His thoughts on Democracy, peoples’ participation and socialism are relevant even in the present-day.
I have used MN Roy as a sort of thread to string through and to talk about the phases of extreme nationalism; socialism; and, communist development in India. Besides, his involvement with the Communist International; the national movement for freedom of India sphere-headed by Congress Party, as also with number of other parties and groups operating from within and outside India cover a vast area of interest .
MN Roy’s associations with the daring freethinkers in France and Germany; and, the participation of those brilliant and highly motivated men and women in India’s National movement is truly amazing. I wonder whether, in today’s world, such cohesion or coming together of intellectuals, cutting across the borders, for a cause, would be possible.
The philosophy of Radical Socialism developed by Roy , during the last phase of his life; as also his vision of future India – away from the rule of corrupt politicians and also from dictators- hold lessons for all of us.
Please do read the other articles in the series as well.
Cheers and Regards
November 5, 2017 at 2:46 pm
Dear Sir, Thank you for your attention and your message of return. I would come back to you some time later when I would have been well immersed in your study. I would do it and would be happy to exchange.
With my best thoughts. And thank you again for your mail.
May 12, 2020 at 11:12 am
Came to know many details – that i didnt know – know not how to thank you –
now i see – he was a visionary – had predicted about democarcy etc – rightly – never knew about the importance of individual that he stressed – and these lines of yours rea mosr important:-
“The rarity of such intellectual odysseys bordering on adventurism in the present times may perhaps have a lot to do with the ephemeral nature of things and the depleted sense of values of the world we live in, dominated by faceless corporations chasing after virtual curves on electronic screens, week after week . Even the leaders of the so-called revolutionary parties, bereft of commitment to their original principles, have gone soft, corrupt and rotting from within.”
– very very rightly said ,
yes, i do rember those days of emergency etc,
– people of his stature – to whom nobody would listen – what do they have to do – rather than beconme a political philosopher ,
democarcy is being expolited – his foresight –
well, this is our country – and may be fate of all countries,
also didnt know about IHEU – thank you,
also liked Amrita Bazar Patrika’s comment – lonely lion……
this indeed is a very very informative article from you –
May 14, 2020 at 1:29 am
Thank you Maa for the visit; and, for the appreciation
Yes. As you observed the polity and the other spheres of life are passing through a critical period
Lets keep our hopes alive
Cheers and Regards