Into the Congress
On the evening of 20 November 1936 (the day of his release from prison) Roy formally joined the Indian National Congress at Dehra Dun. While speaking to the local Press on that occasion, Roy urged Indian Communists to join Indian National Congress to radicalize it; and, said: ‘the Anglo-Indian Press might project my joining the Indian National Congress as evidence of the Congress going Red. No, the Congress is not going Red; the Communists as determined fighters for the freedom of India, on the other hand, are joining the ranks of Congress. I personally have also been persistently defending Congress, though I could not always agree with some details of its policy and found it necessary to express my disagreement in critical terms…..
I am determined to show to the people of India that Communists are not alien elements within the body-politics of India, but are the sons of soil fighting at the vanguard of the army of national freedom under the banner of Indian National Congress, which is our common platform….
My message to the fellow-victims of imperialism is to rally in millions under the flag of the Indian National Congress as a determined army fighting for democratic freedom….. And so on”
Roy left for Lucknow the next day and thereafter reached Allahabad for rest and recuperation at Nehru’s home. He stayed with Nehru for about a week. From there, Roy went to Bombay where a reception was accorded to him by his followers and the socialists. At that reception, Roy mentioned that he proposed to place before the Congress at its Faizpur session to be held a month later (27 and 28 December 1936) a new scheme to consolidate the leftist forces and radicalize the congress organization. Here, he also dwelt on his concept of Constituent Assembly, of which he had been talking about since 1927.
According to Roy, the Congress should transform itself into a Constituent Assembly, following the pattern of French Revolution; and should function as a state within the state. And thereby, it should strive to replace the alien Government by forming the Indian peoples’ Government; and , ultimately capture power.
KK Sinha in his Ideology and politics in India (1973 writes that Roy, while at Bombay, was closeted – for more than about two hours – by three senior right wing leaders of the Congress Party : Sardar Patel , Babu Rajendra Prasad and Bhulabhai Desai They placed before Roy a bizarre offer. They promised Roy that his financial needs for his weekly would be taken care of ; he would be accorded the position of pre-eminent Leftist leader in the Congress; and , he would also be made a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) provided he accepted Gandhi as his sole leader and that he would act in opposing or as a counterweight to Nehru who was going ‘far too left’ to the discomfiture of the majority in the Party . If things go well, they even promised to make Roy the President of INC in place of Nehru, if Gandhi approved.
Roy of course refused to accept the bait and declined the offer. He thereafter conveyed (through a special messenger ) to Nehru who was the President-Elect of the Faizpur Session, the substance of the conversation he had and the offer made to him by the senior right wing leaders. Roy also assured Nehru that he had no intention of opposing him; and that he had come to India and into the Congress, mainly, to work with him.
And, true to his word, during his period of about four years in Congress (October 1936-November 1940), Roy worked along with Nehru and looked forward to Nehru for stepping up the process of radicalization in the Congress. Roy and Nehru were perhaps the only two prominent political leaders in Congress who imbibed western values.
On the eve of the Faizpur session, Roy had his first meeting with Gandhi. They had a lengthy conversation for over ninety minutes. During their prolonged discussion each tried to convince and persuade the other to appreciate his point of view. Gandhi explained his plan to rejuvenate the dying village industries to rouse mass consciousness and to invoke the zeal for freedom. Roy, on the other hand, tried to convince Gandhi of his ideas about how to bring the Congress into a closer contact with the masses through political education. He said, raising such issues would side track the main object, the creation of an united anti-imperialist front for the achievement of Independence. Towards the end of their discussion, Roy promised Gandhi to reduce to writing his thoughts on the ways to strength the Congress, so that Gandhi might persuade the CWC to adopt a resolution based upon his script.
Gandhi clearly pointed out that while the achievement of Independence was the objective of both, they differed on methods. At the end of their talks the two agreed to disagree on certain fundamental questions.
At the conclusion of their talk, Gandhi invited Roy to his evening-prayer meeting; and explained to him the need for the prayer , the power and virtues of prayer and what it meant to him .Roy politely declined to join the prayer meet.
KK Sinha in his Ideology and politics in India (1973; page 253) writes “After Faizapur Congress, when pressed by his disciples of the Sabarmati Ashram to tell his reaction to the conversation he had with Roy, Gandhi advised them to completely ignore Roy as if he did not exist politically; for Roy appeared to him too dangerous a man even to be criticized. “He strikes at my very roots” concluded Gandhi.
[Before we move further, we may briefly talk about the relations that existed between Gandhi and Roy during the years that Roy was in Congress.
Roy had enormous respect to Gandhi – as person. But , differed with Gandhi on many issues.
While Roy was in Congress, he could not get on well with Gandhi. The dislike was mutual.
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, through his letter dated 27 July 1937, to stay out of Indian politics, and just “render mute service “
Dear Friend, I entirely agree with you that every Congressman should fearlessly express the opinion he holds after due deliberation. You ask me how you can best serve the Congress. Since you are new to the organization, I should say you would serve it best by mute service. Segaon, Wardha. The 27th July 1937.
On another occasion, when Roy wrote to several leaders seeking financial help for his weekly journal, Gandhi advised Roy not to take up such an activity for the present. He instead advised Roy to go around the country and to study it for some time. Roy didn’t quite like the suggestion. During the whole time that Roy was in Congress, Gandhi never once consulted Roy on any issue.
As regards Roy, even as early 1920-21, he had maintained that Gandhi was religious revivalist; and he was bound to be a reactionary, however revolutionary he might appear politically. In contrast, Lenin believed that Gandhi, as inspirer and leader of the mass movement and a revolutionary. The role and place of Gandhi in anti-imperialism was crucial to the difference between Roy and Lenin.
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 reminded how during the Ahmadabad Session of the Congress (December 1921), Pandit Motilal Nehru and Deshbandhu C. R. Das had also rejected Gandhi’s resolution for compulsory spinning; and how Motilal Nehru had thundered:’ We decline to make a fetish of the spinning wheel or to subscribe to the doctrine that only through that wheel can we obtain ‘swaraj…Discipline is desirable, but it is not discipline for the majority to expel the minority. We are unable to forget our manhood and our self-respect and to say that we are willing to submit to Gandhi’s orders. The Congress is as much ours as of our opponents.’
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.
However, 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 of Gandhi’s handpicked followers into an “authoritarian dictatorial” High-Command. He 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?
Later, when Roy said: “When political power is concentrated in the hands of a small community, you may have a façade of parliamentary democracy, but for all political purposes it will be a dictatorship, even if it may be paternal and benevolent”, he perhaps also had Gandhi in his mind.
Roy wanted the Congress not to be completely swayed away by the influence of Gandhi and of the bourgeois .The Congress, according to him , was a mass nationalist movement , a symbol of united national front. . It was not the party of any particular class or group.
[But, at the same time, both Roy and Nehru recognized that Gandhi was central to the unity and the very existence of Congress; and, without Gandhi the Congress would lose its mass appeal. Nehru, despite his differences with Gandhi, stayed on with Gandhi in the larger interests of the Party and the National movement. Roy, however, a restless new comer to the Party moved along his own convictions.]
Roy was particularly irked by the shabby treatment he meted out to Subhash Chandra Bose.
Subhash Bose was unanimously elected as the President of the Congress at Haripura session in 1938.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had selected Haripura, near Kadod town, around 13 kilometres north east of Bardoli, in the Surat district of Gujarat, for the 51st convention of the Indian National Congress to be held at Vitthal Nagar, between February 19 to 22, 1938. And, 51 Bullocks’ chariot were decorated for this occasion. Gandhi placed the noted painter, Nandalal Bose as in-charge for creating a unique environment infused with rural art and craft, for the annual session at Haripura. As a significant component of this huge public art campaign, Nandalal created set of seven posters, which were later to become famous as ‘Haripura posters’, celebrating the Indian rural life and culture, in vibrant earthy colors and bold, energetic lines. These depicted rural subjects like Hunters, Musicians, Bull Handlers, Carpenter, Smiths, Spinner, Husking women and modest scenes of rural life including animal rearing, child-nursing and cooking.
It is said; the film director, JBH Wadia, of Wadia Movietone Studio, made a full feature length documentary of the Haripura Congress.
By 1938, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose had emerged as candid spokespersons of the Congress. By the same time, Congress had divided among two groups based upon the conservative and radical ideologies. Subash Chandra Bose was quite critical of the conservative ideology of compromise advocated by Gandhi.
Bose was keen on developing the power of resistance among the people of India, in order to force the British Government to abandon imposing the federal scheme on Indians.
During the 1938 Haripura session differences arose between Gandhi and Bose on the question of attitude to be adopted towards the Great Britain. Subhash Chandra Bose was against the plan of the British to drag India into the Second World War. He was aware of the political instability of Britain and wanted to take advantage of it, rather than wait for the British to grant independence. Which is evident from his statement: Britain’s Peril is India’s Opportunity.
In the Haripura session, at the instance of Subash Bose, a resolution was passed, whereunder, an ultimatum of six months was given to the British to quit, failing which there would be a revolt.
This meant that Subhash did not endorse the nonviolence and Satyagraha tactics of Gandhi to throw the British away. And, this was something Gandhi could not digest.
Subhash Chandra Bose, in his presidential address outlined his policy ; and, stressed the revolutionary potential of the Congress Ministries formed in seven Provinces.:
“My term of office as the Congress President will be devoted to resist the unwanted federal scheme; will all the peaceful and legitimate powers, including non-violence and non-cooperation if necessary and to strengthen the country’s determination to resist this scheme”.
The resolution caused a great divide between Gandhi and Bose. And, Nehru naturally followed Gandhi; and, distanced himself from Bose. The differences grew further when Subhash Chandra Bose organized a National Planning Committee. The idea was to draw a comprehensive plan for economic development of India on the basis of Industrialization. It was against the Charkha policy of Gandhi.
[ For more on Haripura congress session, please check the following links :
In 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose decided to contest again – this time as the spokesperson of militant politics and radical groups representing the ‘new ideas, ideologies, problems and programs’.
The election for the post of the President of the Indian National Congress was announced in January 1939. Subhash Bose contested the election against Gandhi’s chosen nominee. The result of the election was announced on 29 January 1939. And, Subhash Bose had won the election by polling 1580 votes as against his opponent’s 1377 votes. Gandhi was very annoyed and took his nominee’s defeat as his personal defeat. Gandhi and his disciples brought a charge of indiscipline against Bose. Roy wondered: what act of indiscipline Bose had committed, except that he contested the poll against Gandhi’s candidate?!
The re-election of Bose as the President irked both the Right and Left wings of the Congress. While the Right Wing viewed with alarm the election of Bose and the consolidation of Left forces around him as being a challenge to their leadership; the Left wing which was obsessed with ‘seizure of power’ found Bose not entirely to their liking. Had the Left wing succeeded in its attempt it would have meant ‘a minority leadership’; and that would have split the Congress
The constitution of Congress did not provide for the removal of the President and the delegates vote was something which could not be reversed. The Congress Working committee was still controlled by the followers of Gandhi. Thus, Subhash might reign but could not rule. Gandhi, it is said, planned his moves against Subhash with utmost care.
Gandhi saw to it that Bose did not function effectively as the Congress President. Soon after the election, most of the members of the Congress Working Committee resigned, en mass, creating an artificial crisis in the Congress working. Twelve of the fifteen members of the Working Committee resigned, in order, as they explained, to leave a free field for Bose; and also on the grounds that they felt that in his election campaign he had cast aspersions on their bona fides. Jawaharlal Nehru also resigned from the Working Committee, though with a separate statement explaining his special viewpoint (which he said will fully explain in a booklet titled “Where Are We?”)
The Annual Session of the Congress for 1939 which opened on 10 March 1939 in Tripuri, a small village in the Jabalpur District of Central Province (now Madhya Pradesh), was presided over by Subhash Chandra Bose. He was at that time seriously ill, running a temperature of 104* F . Yet, he insisted on attending the session, saying ‘I would rather die here in Narmada that be shifted to a hospital in Jabalpur’. He was brought to the Session by ambulance with his niece Ila Bose as nurse, and attended by Dr. and Mrs. Sunil Bose and his mother, from his Elgin Road house to Howrah station.
Gandhi’s followers insisted that Subash Bose should be certified as being truly ill and made sure that ‘he was not hiding onions under his arm pits’. Only after Dr .Gilder, the Health Minister in Bombay Cabinet confirmed and certified that Bose was running a high fever, they were silenced.
Subhash Chandra Bose presided over the Subject Committee Session reclining on a mattress spread over the dais. At the session, the followers of Gandhi were a formidable group, while Bose’s supporters were soft and not well organized. Gandhi did not attend the Session at Tripuri ,citing the activities in the princely state of Rajkot as being important than the Congress session. But his followers were determined not to allow Bose to function effectively as the Congress President.
Govind Ballab Pant, a veteran Congressman moved a resolution (believed to have been drafted by Gandhi himself) asserting complete faith in Gandhi’s leadership and vesting in him the powers not only to nominate but also to overrule the decisions of the Congress Working Committee. The Pant resolution said: “ In view of the critical situation that may develop ….Gandhi alone can lead the Congress and the country in victory during such a crisis , the Congress regards it as imperative that the Congress executive should command his implicit confidence and requests the president to nominate the Working Committee in accordance with the wishes of Gandhiji”.
When the proposal was presented to the Session, the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) led by Jayaprakash Narayan (who usually supported Bose) chose to remain silent and neutral , though the CPI group within the CSP wanted to vote against the resolution. The CS deserted Bose right when he most needed their support. The Pant resolution was passed; and Bose’s fate in Congress was sealed.
R.M. Pal in his Gandhi, Democracy, and Days of Struggle: Political Scientists Views on M N Roy discusses: “Why did Bose allow Pant resolution to be raised knowing that it was unconstitutional and undemocratic? Bose later explained to Gandhi in a letter written on 25 March 1939 that he could have vetoed this proposal but did not do so because his democratic outlook had the priority over the issue of constitutional validity. He also wrote, “I felt it would be unmanly to take shelter behind the constitution at a time when I felt that there was the possibility of an adverse vote”.
Lying on the sick-bed in the Camp, Subash Bose wrote his Presidential address, the briefest in Congress history. He warned that an imperialist war would break out in Europe within six months. He demanded that the Congress should deliver a six – month ultimatum to Britain; and, in the event of its rejection a country-wide struggle for ‘Poorna Swaraj’ should be launched.
His warning and advice went unheeded, and what was worse, his powers as President were sought to be curtailed. He therefore resigned from his President’s post in April 1939; and in May 1939 announced the formation of the Forward Bloc within the Congress.
In August1939, Bose was removed from the Presidency of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee, and further debarred from holding any elective office in the Congress for a period of three years (some believe that Gandhi himself drafted this resolution) . In September 1939 war broke out in Europe, and Bose’s prophecy at Tripuri came true almost to the very day.
Gandhi, however, claimed that he loved Subhash as a son, but his love which was as soft as a rose could also be harder than flint. But for the act of Gandhi and his followers in throwing out Bose from the Congress, things might have been different, in that Gandhi might not have remained the absolute leader for a long time.
With the expulsion of Subhash Bose the ingredients, the complexion and nature of Congress also changed. The party till then was an umbrella organization, sheltering radical socialists, traditionalists, and Hindu and Muslim conservatives. But ,between 1939-42 , along with Subhas Chandra Bose , the socialist groups including the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) , Krishak Praja Party, and Swarajya Party, were all expelled from Congress . It is believed this was done at the instance of Gandhi. It was now almost entirely a right-wing organization.
This was totally opposite to Roy’s vision of Congress as the vanguard of the army of national freedom, a common platform and the United Front for those striving for India’s freedom and social restructuring.
With the sidelining of Subhash Bose the Right-wing Gandhian asserted its complete control over the Congress. That prompted Roy to get together his followers within the Congress; and, to bunch them into a group called League For Radical Congressmen, on May Day 1939, at Calcutta. Its inaugural session was held in Poona in June 1939. Though its program was basically that of Congress, it demanded more energetic action for realizing its aims; and, in the process advocated change in the leadership at the top. That truly angered the majority in Congress.
Roy was also unhappy with Gandhi’s opposition to the Allied War effort. And, at the same time Roy broke definitively with the Bengal politicians with his opposition to Subhas Bose’s involvement with Hitler’s Nazis. Roy warned “that the evil of fascism knows no boundaries”. Roy was thus isolated from the right-wing Gandhi followers, the supporters of Subhas Bose and even from the CSP of JP Narayan.
Philip Spratt, a renowned Communist in his days and a journalist, noted that Roy’s approach to Gandhism “seems that of an outsider, an unsympathetic foreigner”. He had failed to make his criticism intelligible to the Indian reader. “He has never tried to get under the skin of the Mahatma or his admirers, to see where that extraordinary power comes from,” Spratt said.
In 1937, while in Congress, Roy was perhaps closer to Marx than to Gandhi. He contended that political independence alone does not amount to freedom, since it lacks the economic rights and opportunities for the masses. In the first issue of his weekly The Independent India, Roy wrote under the heading National Freedom that ‘political freedom is not the end, it is the means to an end, which is the radical transformation of the Indian society… The required changes in the social structure of our country will be brought about primarily through transfer of ownership of the land to the cultivator’. ‘And once this is attained ‘ he said’ the transformation will be complete by the rapid growth of modern mechanized industry , guarantee to the cultivator of the entire product of his labor; abolition of all privileges; and wide distribution of the newly created wealth’. Roy thus conceived freedom in terms of sweeping economic reforms.
Gandhi claimed to recognize the importance of economic reform; but the emphasized the ‘moral’ aspect of freedom. Gandhi thus preferred to use the term ‘Swaraj’ which for him combined in itself not only Self-rule but also Self-control. This view of freedom dominated Indian national tradition. Earlier, Sri Aurobindo had also distinguished the internal (moral) and external (political and economic) freedom. Swami Vivekananda had summed it by saying: one may gain political free and social independence, but if one is a slave to his passions and desires, one cannot feel the pure joy of real freedom’.
Interestingly, Roy in his later years revised his view of Freedom. He now believed that the motives of freedom, fraternity and order along with moral motive characterized true social revolution and Freedom. The moral motive, he said, was essential to build a strong and durable order as it ensures honesty and transparency in working of the system. In his “New Humanism” or the new philosophy of revolution, Roy went on to elaborate the idea. According to Roy, freedom does not necessarily follow from the capture of political power in the name of the oppressed and the exploited classes and abolition of private property in the means of production. For creating a new world of freedom, says Roy, revolution must go beyond an economic reorganization of society. A political system and an economic experiment which subordinate the man of flesh and blood to an imaginary collective ego, be it the nation or class, cannot possibly be, in Roy’s view, the suitable means for the attainment of the goal of freedom .
Years later, Roy was highly impressed by Gandhi moving away from power-zone immediately after India attained Independence. He appreciated Gandhi’s one-man peace mission to Bengal to douse the flames of communal riots, while celebrations were going on Delhi. Roy respected Gandhi’s moral power. The news of Gandhi’s assassination reached Roy while he was delivering a talk at Calcutta. He was deeply shocked, thoroughly disturbed and could not continue with his talk; and ended the meeting with tributes to Gandhi. In his article published in Independent India, Roy paid glowing tributes to Gandhi, stressing on Gandhi’s message that the end does not justify means. ]
Sources and References
M N Roy by V B Karnik
M.N. Roy: A Political Biography by Samaren Roy
Leftism in India Ch.9-11 by S M Ganguli
Socialism of Jawaharlal Nehru by Rabindra Chandra Dutt
Elites in south Asia Indian Political Thought: Themes and Thinkers Edited by Mahendra Prasad Singh, Himanshu Roy
Sources of Indian Tradition: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh by Rachel Fell McDermott
The Mahatma and the Ism by E. M. S. Namboodiripad
Elections after Government of India Act 1935
M.N. Roy – Marxism and Colonial Cosmopolitanism: by Kris Manjapra
Pictures are from Internet