The Thyagaraja Hall in south Calcutta, where theCPI split took shape in 1964. (Sanjay Ghosh)
Given the state of the party, 2014 may bring little cheer for the CPM. If anything, it may mark a new low with the party’s — and the Left’s — tally from Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls doomed to hit rock bottom.
But it is the year of Jyoti Basu’s birth centenary. So that’s something the party cadres can look forward to. Whether it does anything to lift their morale and fortunes is another matter.
The new year also marks the 50th anniversary of another big event in the Indian communist movement. But that’s not something the party faithful would like to celebrate.
The great split in the Communist Party of India finally happened in 1964. It had been coming for several years. One might say its beginnings coincided with India’s independence. Indian communists were never sure how to react to the event and to Jawaharlal Nehru’s new government. The slogan “Yeh azaadi jhoota hai (this independence is a sham)” at the Calcutta congress of the party in 1948 captured the party’s dilemma.
It was also the start of factional fights that raged in subsequent years, beginning with P.C. Joshi’s expulsion at Moscow’s instigation in 1950.
Three issues were at the heart of the battle between Rightists and Leftists in the CPI: the character of the new Indian state, the debate over the current stage of the Indian revolution and the right line to be adopted towards the Congress and its government.
The Rightists favoured collaboration with the national bourgeoisie and the Congress, which, in the CPI’s view, represented that class. Joshi was expelled for what, to the then Moscow-directed party leadership, was a pro-Nehru, pro-Congress line.
Those were the days before the Congress itself became a pro-Soviet Union party. Joshi was later re-inducted into the party but the schism never left it.
The battles continued over the next decade until two events pushed the two party factions to a point of no return. One was the Chinese aggression in Arunachal Pradesh in October 1962. The Rightists sided with the Congress and all other major political parties in blasting Mao Zedong’s China (by this time, the Sino-Soviet break had also come).
The Leftists, while not supporting the Chinese action, did not join the nationwide China-bashing. They came to be known as pro-Beijing and as “traitors”. When large numbers of their leaders and activists were jailed, the Leftists accused the Rightists of actually helping the police identify and arrest them.
The bitterness that the 1962 war brought to the party only got worse. Next year, the second big push for the party split came when some letters allegedly written by the CPI chairman, S.A. Dange, to the British in the early 1940s were “discovered” at the National Archives.
The “Dange letters”, as they came to be known, offered to collaborate with British rule. The Leftists pounced on them and used them to demand Dange’s resignation as chairman. Dange refused. So did the CPI central executive committee at its meeting in New Delhi in April 1964. The Leftist leaders walked out of the meeting.
These leaders met at Tenali in Andhra Pradesh in July to take the first step to form a new communist party. The split took shape at a party congress at south Calcutta’s Thyagaraja Hall from October 31 to November 7, 1964.
Basu gave the inaugural speech. The congress adopted a document calling for a “people’s democratic revolution” in India. The parent party’s call was for a “national bourgeois revolution”.
But when did the breakaway party get its new name, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)? Some party documents say it got the new name in 1965. But, in his autobiographical narrative With The People, Basu says: “On the eve of the general elections in 1967, we renamed the party (to get an election symbol) the Communist Party of India (Marxist).”
Those elections saw comrades fighting comrades out in the open. In Bengal, one of the most popular CPM campaign slogans in the polls was: “Delhi theke elo gai, sangey bachhur CPI (from Delhi comes the cow, the calf CPI in tow).” The Congress’s election symbol those days was the cow and the calf.
The Marxists, as the new partymen came to be called, were in an overwhelming majority in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. In Andhra Pradesh, the division was nearly equal. But the original party dominated the other state units.
At the time of the party split, a pro-CPI joke had it that the brain went with the CPI and the brawn with the CPM. It was a throwback to the times when Joshi had brought in several bright young people with an Oxbridge background to the central leadership.
To the Leftists, a communist party could not afford to be a party of intellectuals. So the CPM was the new party in which class struggle and mass line were the new mantra. In practical politics, it meant a no-holds-barred anti-Congressism.
Much has changed since then. The two communist parties joined united or Left democratic fronts for the first time in the 1980 Lok Sabha polls — after the CPI expiated its sin of supporting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and finally repudiated its pro-Congress line at its congress in Bhatinda in 1978.
But then, there have been other splits since 1964. The Naxalites broke away from the CPM in 1967 and then split into so many splinter groups. That, though, is the history of communist parties all over the world. All parties split, but communists definitely split more than others.