A peep into the past

Khrushchev in the workers' canteen of a Bombay textile mill during his 1955 visit.

Khrushchev in the workers' canteen of a Bombay textile mill during his 1955 visit.  

SOME months ago when the 31st volume of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, was published, the country learnt for the first time of a remarkably revealing feature of the epoch-making maiden visit to India of the Soviet leaders, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, way back in 1955. It transpired, to the surprise of many, that in the midst of the exceptionably exuberant welcome given to them and the extremely friendly and productive discussions held with them, there was one sticking point. Nehru was constrained to remonstrate with Bulganin and Khrushchev, politely but firmly, about the penchant of the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) to seek and receive "guidance" and "direction" from the Soviet Union on what "line" to follow.

The Soviet side, with Khrushchev doing most of the talking, blandly and disingenuously denied the charge, of course. However, the record (summary, rather than verbatim) of the Prime Minister's frank exchange with the Soviet leaders makes fascinating and instructive reading. But, strangely, adequate notice of the hugely important disclosures was not taken either at that time or later.

This, by itself, would have been reason enough to examine the matter in requisite detail. The task is now made imperative by what the Communist leader, Mohit Sen, who sadly died only the other day, has had to say on the subject in his eminently readable story of his life, A Traveller and the Road, the Journal of an Indian Communist. In fact, there is in Mohit's book devastating evidence — from the other side of the fence, so to speak — to confirm Nehru and confute Khrushchev.

For example, Nehru, after outlining the background to the CPI's exit from the national movement when it decided to support the British in their war effort, told his guests: "Until this year (1955) the Communist Party was saying that Indian people were not independent; they even opposed our National Day celebrations. ... They also said that when they were in doubt about the right line of action, they had to get directions from the Soviet Union. Early in 1951-52, some principal leaders of the Communist Party went to Moscow secretly, that is without passports. They came back and said that they had got directions from Mr. Stalin. At least this is what they said. The line then laid down was one of full opposition (to the Government) and, where possible, petty insurrections".

To this Nehru had added, that in mid-1955 the CPI had got "confused" by the tremendous welcome he had received during his visit to the Soviet Union. "Last September one of their principal leaders, A.K. (Ajoy) Ghosh, went to Moscow and said he had come back with fresh instructions. He said to his party that they should play down opposition to Government but must be ready to start insurrection when necessary ... "

If Nehru's presentation was marked by calibrated candour, Khrushchev's response was a classic example of evasion and dissimulation. "With the abolition of the Comintern," he said, "there was no organisation for leading the Communist Parties in other countries. The Cominform never got together even once. The fact was that they in the Soviet Union did not have information about the Communist Parties in other countries. The Soviet leaders did not even know before they went to Burma that more than one Communist Party existed in Burma. U Nu had the same feeling as the Prime Minister. Mr Khrushchev said on his word of honour that they (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) had no connection with the Indian Communist Party. ... "

As for the claims of Indian Communist leaders that they had received directions from Stalin himself (a claim Nehru conceded could be exaggerated but was repeatedly made by the leaders concerned), Khrushchev's remarks were no less evasive and misleading. Indian Communist leaders, he said, "might have seen Stalin who was a great man and they might have ascribed things to him (Stalin) that he did not say". Khrushchev thereafter embarked on a convoluted story of the early years of the Soviet Union when a Smart Alec commander of a military detachment overcame the resistance of his men to his order by pretending to have "telephoned Mr. Lenin" and securing his approval. Khrushchev insisted that this was a "true story" and perhaps symbolic of what some Indian Communists were trying to do.

About Ajoy Ghosh's September 1955 sojourn in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev said that he "did not know of any Communist Party leaders in India visiting Moscow" at that time. Both he and Bulganin "were on leave. ... He knew by name the Secretary of the Communist Party of India, Mr. Ghosh. He had seen him but never had an opportunity of a discussion with him."

Mohit Sen's account of what had gone on from the early 1950s onwards has demolished Khrushchev's clever, clever attempt to confuse the issue and to appeal to Nehru, "Don't put anything the CPI says, good or bad, on our shoulders".

At the start of that distant decade, records Sen, "the CPI was in deep crisis and bitterly divided" on what to do. The differences between those advocating the "Chinese path", replacing the earlier "Russian path", and others who passionately pleaded for the "Indian path" seemed irreconcilable. "The proponents of the `Chinese path' led by Comrade C. Rajeswara Rao and those of the `Indian path' led by Comrade Ajoy Ghosh had set up their own centres and the CPI was on the verge of a split. It was then that the Soviet Communists intervened.

"Four leaders, two from each centre, were brought to Moscow. They travelled incognito as manual workers on a Soviet ship from Calcutta. They were Comrades Ajoy Ghosh, S.A. Dange, C. Rajeswara Rao and M. Basava Punnaiah. None of them divulged the details of how they were contacted and what their exact itinerary was. Nikhil Chakravartty, who (had planned) the journey has also said nothing."

"S.A. Dange and C. Rajeswara Rao have both told me," Sen goes on, "about the meeting with the leaders of the CPSU. The first meeting was attended from the Soviet side by Comrades Suslov, Malenkov and Molotov. It was on the third day that it was announced that Comrade Stalin would attend. So he did for subsequent days. Dange and Rajeswara Rao said he was an attentive listener though he rarely sat at the table but kept pacing up and down smoking a pipe. But he intervened subtly to turn the discussion beyond dogmatic disputes to assessments of the existing situation and immediate tactical tasks.

"Stalin's view also was that India was not an independent country but ruled indirectly by British colonialists. He also agreed that the Communists could eventually advance only by heading an armed revolution. But this would not be of the Chinese type. ... He strongly advised that the armed struggle being conducted in Telengana should be ended. ... Stalin also cautioned the CPI leaders that the Nehru government was not a puppet government. It had a social base and mass support and could not be overthrown easily." And so on.

This is by no means all. There is a wealth of hitherto unpublished information in both Sen's book and the 31st volume of SWJN that trashes Khrushchev's playacting with an air of injured innocence.

For instance, at one stage during their conversations, Nehru referred to the articles in the Bucharest newspaper, For a Lasting Peace, For a People's Democracy, "which was supposed to represent the official Communist policy. Another difficulty, which created misunderstanding, was that the Communist Party of India sent misleading reports to Moscow on conditions in India."

Khrushchev's reply: "If they send reports, we do not see them at all. Whom do they send these reports to? I do not find time to read the newspaper referred to by the Indian Prime Minister."

As it happens, Mohit Sen has forcefully underscored the enormous importance in the Communist scheme of things at that time of the editorials and other writings in For a Lasting Peace, For a People's Democracy because these were vetted, and sometimes written, by the top leadership of the CPSU.

Sen was at Cambridge in the summer of 1950 when the highly respected British Communist leader, Rajni Palme Dutt, called a conference of "all Indian Communists in Britain." His purpose was to convince them of the need to reject the B.T. Ranadive line the CPI had been following for some years and this, needless to add, he duly achieved. Writes Sen, "the famous editorial (making the same point) had already appeared in `For A Lasting Peace, For A People's Democracy' (Sic). We later learnt that the editorial had, in fact, been written by RPD and approved prior to publication by Suslov who in turn, secured Stalin's endorsement."

In the confines of a newspaper article, it is not possible to sum up all there is to note on the subject in the two books. Those interested would do well to excavate these treasure-troves themselves.

Meanwhile, one more point must be made. All through the period the Soviet leaders travelled across India or made a side-visit to Burma, Nehru kept a number of people, including U Nu, Krishna Menon in New York and his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit in London, where she was High Commissioner then, fully informed. To all of them he complained that the Soviet leaders, Khrushchev in particular, had been speaking in public "here in a somewhat propagandist tone. ... Many of us have felt that it was not quite appropriate for Khrushchev to make our receptions an occasion for this kind of speeches. However, as they were our guests we did not wish to say anything about it."

Of these letters let me mention just two. One was to Rajaji a.k.a C. Rajagopalachari. "I am glad," Nehru wrote to him, "you met Bulganin and Khrushchev. Your estimate of them appears to me to be right, except for your comparing Khrushchev to Hitler. Khrushchev is the usual party chief but he is utterly unlike Hitler. ... Hitler was strongly imaginative and considered himself to be some kind of a messiah. (But) he was a very ignorant person, broadly speaking."

The second letter, to Edwina Mountbatten, says, inter alia, "the visit of Bulganin and Khrushchev has evidently raised the temperature of some of the British newspapers or their writers. Some have indeed worked themselves up into frenzy. I have been wondering if there has been a basic change in the character of those who write in the newspapers in England. I associated some restraint and some balance of mind with them but evidently this is lacking now. I am distressed. ... "

One wonders what Nehru would have said of the British and American media's coverage of the Iraq War and the current search by the occupying powers for the invisible weapons of mass destruction in defeated Iraq.

Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume XXXI, edited by H.Y. Sharada Prasad and A.K. Damodaran, A Project of Jawaharlal Nehru Fund, distributed by OUP, p.578, Rs. 500.

A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist, Mohit Sen, Rupa, p.524, Rs. 395.

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