• Why Is Lenin Special to India?

    "RSS played no part in the Indian freedom movement. Yet, BJP wants to re-invent Indian nationalism as a current with no external"

    Amaresh Mishra

    March 9, 2018


    Public response to toppling of Lenin's statue in Tripura has surprised many, including the BJP, the party that presided over the act.

    What's so special about Lenin? What kind of a hold has he–a Russian revolutionary–villified by the West, reviled by Hindutva right, avoided by centrists–over Indian public memory?

    Answers to these questions lie in the unique nature of the Indian Independence movement, and its relationship with Lenin and Left-wing ideas…

    Right from 1857, India's Independence War was not fought in isolation. International ideas, theories, practices intersected in seemingly innumerable ways. Thus, not just our culture, but our freedom movement too, was a melting pot. Few know of the anti-British role played by Armenians, Arabs, Afghans, Anglo-Indians, even an Irish doctor, a Russian adventurer, Begum Hazrat Mahal's Egyptian-lady warriors, and "Bob the Nailer", during 1857.

    The rise of Marxist and socialist ideas impacted India deeply. Lala Hardayal, one of the foremost freedom fighter figure during the early 20th century, contemporary of both Veer Savarkar and Shyamji Verma (eulogised by Modi), called Marx a "modern Rishi". Earlier, in the 1900s, during protests against Curzon's partition of Bengal plan, Bal Gangadhar Tilak developed his Swadeshi movement.

    Advocating self-rule, the Swadeshi impulse was one of the first mass movements of India. The Bombay working class participated enthusiastically. The British targeted Tilak.

    In 1908, Praful Chaki and Khudiram Bose, two Bengali youths, threw a bomb at the carriage of a British officer in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Chaki committed suicide but Bose was caught and hanged. Tilak, in his paper Kesari, defended the revolutionaries and called for immediate Swaraj or self-rule. Slapped with sedition charges, he was exiled to Burma for six years in 1909.

    Bombay's working class hit the streets again to protest Tilak's incarceration. Himself in exile, the Russian revolutionary Lenin hailed the struggle of the Indian people, especially, the working class upsurge. Slamming the British as brutes, Lenin wrote: "The most liberal and radical personalities of free Britain…become regular Genghis Khans when appointed to govern India, and are capable of sanctioning every means of "pacifying" the population in their charge, even to the extent of flogging political protestors!”

    Blasting the “infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak”, Lenin predicted that with the Indians having got a taste of political mass struggle, the “British regime in India is doomed”.

    The 1917 Bolshevik revolution under Lenin fired the Indian political imagination and affected profoundly, its course. Russian developments inspired the Ghadar movement, Khilafat impulse, and the Reshmi Roomal Tehrik.

    Nehru was to write later that "almost at the same time as the October Revolution led by the great Lenin, we in India began a new phase in our struggle for freedom. Our people for many years were engaged in this struggle with courage and patience. And although under the leadership of Gandhi we followed another path, we were influenced by the example of Lenin.”

    Evaluating the Russian revolution, Gandhihimself said that “nations have progressed both by evolution and revolution”, and that "history is more a record of wonderful revolution than of so-called ordered progress”.

    Afraid of the Indian Freedom Movement learning from the Russian revolution, or other struggles, like the Irish Independence war, British Indian authorities, began spreading canards against Lenin. Writing in Kesari, Tilak defended Lenin. Tilak wrote that, "Lenin was in favour of peace…he only wants justice for oppressed…he is popular among the people and the army because he distributed land amongst the peasantry".

    In the 1920s, several Indian freedom fighters took the revolutionary path. Bengal revolutionaries of "Yugantar" and "Anushilan" quoted Lenin freely; in North India, the Hindustan Republican Army (HRA) emerged as a major force. Taken over by Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad after the "Kakori episode" and the arrest of Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaque Ullah and Thakur Roshan Singh, HRA was changed to HSRA–with the "S" standing for Socialist. Lenin, especially his open support to the Indian freedom struggle, deeply influenced Bhagat Singh and Azad.

    Under Gaya Prasad Katiyar, a HSRA team went to Russia for arms training. Bhagat Singh himself wanted to go to Russia. But developments in the wake of Lala Lajpat Rai's death, led Bhagat Singh to kill Saunders, a British officer. Later, Bhagat Singh was arrested in 1929 for throwing a non-lethal bomb in Delhi, inside the Parliament hall.

    During his prison term/trial, Bhagat Singh read a lot of Marxist literature. Singh's jail manifesto spoke about HSRA's aim as being, the establishment of a socialist society.

    On 21st January, 1930, Bhagat Singh and his comrades read out a telegram in the British Court that they wanted to send to Russia. The telegram sent "Revolutionary Greetings to the Grat Lenin". Earlier, in September, 1929, Jatindra Nath, another staunch, HSRA admirer of Lenin, died in Bhagat Singh's arms during the historic, jail hunger strike. When, finally, Bhagat Singh was summoned to be hanged, he was reading Lenin.

    In 1930, the Chittagong armoury raid shook the British authorities. Kalpana Datta, a member of the Indian Nationalist Army under Surya Sen, was an ardent admirer of Lenin. Datta later joined the Communist Party of India.

    In the 1930s, Lenin inspired Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, Jai Prakash Narayan, and several other prominent freedom fighters, including Subhash Chandra Bose. From Allama Iqbal and Hasrat Mohani, to Subramaniam Bharati, Premchand and Nirala, almost all poets, men and women of literature, spoke in glowing terms about Lenin.

    This unique aspect of Indian nationalism played a major part in shaping the nature of political discourse in the post-Independence period. Till the early 1990s, India remained a nation active on international issues, championing the cause of the weak, in foreign policy. India also, was famous for hosting International seminars, engaging actively with issues of superpower hegemony, human rights, environment, and giving space to oppressed nationalities like Palestine. The city-scape of Delhi, India's capital, retains, to this day, a cosmopolitan character, with streets dotted with roads named after Pushkin and Nelson Mandela among others.

    Toppling Lenin's statue has no buyers in India.

    RSS played no part in the Indian freedom movement. Yet, BJP wants to re-invent Indian nationalism as a current with no external, Left-wing influence…

    Needless to add, this project at least is doomed to fail…


    First published in The Citizen.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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