By Imran Kamyana
Translated By Hassan Jan
The South Asian Subcontinent is brimming with unprecedented socioeconomic instability and downfall amid the generalized crisis of global capitalism at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. One fourth of the world’s population and one half of global poverty are concentrated here. Capitalism, which evolved into modern and somewhat prosperous societies in most Western and a few Eastern countries, has been a nightmare for the vast majority of the two billion souls of South Asia. In the words of Lenin, it has been a horror without an end. After the sham independence from direct British rule in 1947 none of the independent countries in South Asia has evolved into a developed capitalist state. Pakistan, which came into being in the name of religion, has a long history of direct or indirect military regimes which continues to this day. But India, which for decades has been hailed as the largest democracy and secular state, a role model for developing nations, has now gone into the clutches of the Hindu fundamentalist and semi-fascist government of the BJP. The mob lynching of minorities has become the order of the day in both countries. Bangladesh, which seceded from Pakistan in 1971, is under a semi dictatorship. Nepal, Bhutan and other smaller countries of the region are virtually the satellite states of India. If we look at the outskirts of the region, Afghanistan and Iran are engulfed by Sunni and Shiite theocracies. The bloody military dictatorship in Burma is crushing every dissenting voice. Sri Lanka is in the throes of the worst crisis after it recently defaulted on its loans. These facts once again prove that a stable and healthy socio-political superstructure can’t be constructed upon backward and crisis-ridden economic foundations. Consequently, capitalism has been incapable of fulfilling any of its historical tasks in this part of the world. Religiosity has its deep imprints in politics and the state at every level. The economic and cultural remnants of feudalism couldn’t be wiped out. A broad-based and deep industrialization couldn’t be carried out due to a lack of firm material and social infrastructure. Alongside class oppression, there is a relentless national oppression from Balochistan to Kashmir and from Assam to Nagaland. The various national liberation movements in the region indicate that the belated capitalism of the region has utterly failed in constructing a modern and unified bourgeois nation and providing a harmonious development to all nationalities. Owing to this historical belatedness of capitalism, the region is a strange amalgamation of modernity and backwardness, which has rendered the South Asian societies a museum of historical evolution, where the technical, social, and cultural remnants of socio-economic systems of the distant past can be witnessed alongside the latest techniques of modern capitalism. The phenomenon can be best explained by the Leon Trotsky’s law of combined and uneven development. These societies can neither be analyzed nor a scientific perspective produced for them without keeping in mind this conception.
There is no future without the past. Without analyzing the past events we can’t delve into the future. The present mayhem in the South Asian Subcontinent has a historical background spanning hundreds of years, in which almost two hundred years of direct British colonial subjugation played an essential role. The plunder, tyranny, exploitation, massacres, depredations and ultimately the religious partition of the Subcontinent are the hallmarks of the British colonial rule in India. This book provides a Marxist analysis of this historical background.
It is almost impossible to ascertain the real human and financial cost of British rule in the Subcontinent. The renowned economist Utsa Patnaik from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi has estimated in her recent investigation that British colonialists stole almost $45 trillion from 1765 to 1938 from the Subcontinent. A staggering 1.8 billion Indians died of British-induced famines, hunger, and deprivation from 1757 to 1947, besides the innumerable massacres carried out by the colonial authorities. Hundreds of thousands were killed as punishment for their participation in 1857 war of independence (also called the First War of Independence), most of whom were executed through blowing from cannons. The stories of massacres at Jallianwala Bagh are horripilating even today. According to conservative estimates, one million people were slaughtered during partition-related religious pogroms in 1947 and 20 million were forced to migrate (probably the largest migration in human history). Innumerable women were raped. Things must not have been different in other colonized continents of Africa and Latin America. Behind all the dazzling development of Western capitalism lies this dark story of human humiliation, disgrace, depredation, and exploitation which has been cunningly obliterated from the official history. However, without unveiling these dark chapters of the history, the current mayhem in these societies can neither be appraised nor a scientific solution presented.
The South Asia Subcontinent has been the epicenter of one of the oldest civilizations of the world. About five thousand years ago, the Indus Valley Civilization in Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Rakhigarhi constructed one of the most advanced and planned cities of the time in which burnt bricks were used in the construction of houses. Remains of similar but even older cities have also been found at Mehrgarh. Their sewerage system was far better than most of the modern cities of the region today. These were virtually classless societies with no large palaces and instruments of oppressionsto be found. Later on, there was a series of despotic dynasties. However, due to numerous large rivers, virtually unlimited fertile lands, favorable climatic conditions, and colossal natural resources these regions had very rich agriculture and an abundance of wealth. As a result, despite all the exploitative monarchies, a civilized and highly cultured society developed where science, philosophy, architecture, and art thrived. The number zero, for example, was first introduced by Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628. The immense wealth and riches of the region always attracted foreign invaders. However, most of the invaders belonged to the regions with a lower cultural level, and hence, despite their political dominance, they merged into the rich domestic culture and advanced civilization of the region. The Mughal invaders were basically Central Asian Muslims who founded their empire here in 1526—which reached its greatest extent in 1690 during the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, incorporating a large part of present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and covering 4 million kilometer squares inhabited by over 150 million people. In 1700, Mughal India’s share of world GDP was 24 percent, making it one of the most prosperous regions of the world. Despite all the tyranny and exploitation, the GDP grew exponentially during the Mughal era. They constructed highways, implemented a single currency, and brought almost the entire region under a strong central government. Fine arts flourished and even today the Mughal architecture, of which the Taj Mahal is an excellent example, is mesmerizing. Contrary to the common perception among bourgeois historians, which was later borrowed by the Stalinists to justify their two-stage theory, the socioeconomic system during this period was not feudalism. Rather it was, as described by Karl Marx, Asiatic Despotism, or the Asiatic Mode of Production, with no private ownership of land. Feudalism was first introduced by the British rulers in 1793 through the Permanent Settlements Act. This “grafted feudalism” enmeshed in capitalism was far different from the classical European feudalism. It was imposed by the British for their exploitative designs, particularly to increase agricultural production to be expropriated and to create a class of submissive local rulers. The basic character of this local ruling class remains unchanged even after centuries. Trotsky described them as a “comprador bourgeoisie” whose historical role has been that of a commission agent in the imperialist plunder. The British, who first came here as traders at the start of 17th century, were the first invaders who belonged to a higher culture and technique, as by that time capitalism had emerged in Europe. As a result, they couldn’t be absorbed into this region as their predecessors used to be. Rather they changed the whole historic course of development of these societies. The victory of the British East India Company at the battle of Plassey in 1757 was an important milestone in the British capture of India. The disintegration of the Mughal Empire accelerated after that, and one province after another was captured by the East India Company. The first major rebellion against its “Company Rule” and plunder erupted in 1857, ignited by the mutiny of Company soldiers (East India Company was kind of a multinational corporation with its own standing army, mostly recruited from the locals). This mutiny swiftly spread across the country and transformed into a liberation movement. Due to a lack of organization and other internal weaknesses the rebellion was drowned in blood and mercilessly crushed. The last remnants of the Mughal Empire were hence wiped out. However, the Company Rule was also abolished, and India was formally merged into the British Empire. In this regard Karl Marx’s articles of the time on India in the NewYork Tribune are very important—in which he raised the point that the instrument of historical retribution is forged by the offender itself, and the introduction of railways by the British would unite India and lay the foundation for a countrywide rebellion in the future.
After the defeat of 1857 war of independence, British imperialism on the one hand nourished a local bourgeoisie, bourgeois politics and a colonial state. On the other hand, they deliberately promoted religious conflicts and hatred as a bulwark of their colonial rule. In the census of 1871, they consciously added a religious column to divide the population into two distinct groups: Hindus and Muslims. The founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and of the All-India Muslim League in 1906 was part of this imperialist project. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Patel etc. were the political representatives of this “grafted bourgeoisie”. Thus, parallel to the resistance and revolutionary politics of the workers and peasants, a lackey and “civilized” bourgeois politics was nurtured and cunningly imposed on the masses. The liberation movement of the Subcontinent was always divided on class lines. On the one hand, there were revolutionary tendencies that aspired to carry the national liberation movement to class liberation, culminating in the abolition of the whole imperialist system. Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) was one of such tendencies (among many). On the other hand, the Muslim League and the Congress wanted a compromise at every crucial juncture to ensure the continuation of the imperialist system even after the departure of the British. In this book, the hypocritical role of such a grafted bourgeoisie, described as a “tamed bourgeoisie”, has been brilliantly unveiled. It is a tragedy that there is confusion regarding imperialist stooges like Gandhi among not only liberal but also Marxist circles, as he is usually thought of as somewhat progressive. Similarly, very few people are aware that the responsibility for the partition of the Subcontinent on a religious basis rests more on the shoulders of the apparently progressive and secular Jawaharlal Nehru than on Jinnah. Many such facts are discussed in this book, which revolutionaries of the whole world must become aware of.
Trotsky had said this about the Indian bourgeoisie in July 1939 in “Open Letter to the Workers on India”:
“The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what the price and lull the Indian masses with hopes of reforms from above. The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. A fake leader and a false prophet!”
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had a tremendous impact on the consciousness of the people of India, particularly the advanced segments of the working class and the intelligentsia. The Communist Party in the Indian Subcontinent was founded under the aegis of the Comintern in 1925. Despite all its ideological and political weaknesses and the repressions by the British Raj, the party vastly penetrated and greatly influenced the liberation struggle and the labor movement. However, the degeneration of the Communist Party of India was linked to the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union itself. The party oscillated from ultra-leftism to reconciliation with the national bourgeoisie. Despite this, the labor and peasant movements of the 1920s and 1930s were greatly influenced by the interventions of the Party and communist ideals. However, with the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet government, like all the communist parties of the world, the Communist Party of India was also transformed into a mere instrument of the foreign policy of Soviet Union. This degeneration reached its peak when, after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler’s Germany, the Communist Party was ordered by the Moscow to support Britain in the war. The party was mobilizing an antiwar movement a day before these orders. In this regard, an interesting anecdote has been narrated in the book where the party leader was in the midst of a fiery antiwar speech when the instructions were received from Moscow, and he had to change his positions right away. This somersault and reconciliation with the British Raj severely damaged the Party’s reputation in the eyes of the masses, so much so that the party never recovered from this damage and failed to provide a revolutionary program for the liberation movement.
At the end of the war in 1946, the eruption of a revolutionary movement changed the whole scenario in the region. On the 18th of February 1946, the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy mutinied. The strike committee was led by a Muslim and a Sikh sailor. This was a conscious decision to dispel the religious divide promoted and indoctrinated by the British imperialists and the comprador national bourgeoisie. In the blink of an eye, this mutiny spread across various branches of the British India Army. The Union Jack hoisted at the Royal Indian Navy ships anchored at Bombay coastline were torn apart and red flags along with flags of the parties participating in the liberation struggle were hoisted. The central strike committee published a leaflet which ended with these slogans, “Long live the unity of workers, soldiers, students, and peasants. Long live the revolution!” On the 21st of February, the troops loyal to the British opened fire on the sailors when they were coming out of their barracks on the Bombay Fort. This provocation transformed the peaceful movement into an outright rebellion. Armed clashes continued all day between the sailors and the forces loyal to the British. The industrial workers showing solidarity with the sailors were dealt with violently by the British Elite Force. On the 22nd and 23rd of February, 250 sailors and workers were killed. Eyewitness accounts described that it seemed that the whole Subcontinent had risen up with revolutionary fervor against the imperialist subjugation. The striking sailors called for a general strike on the 20th-21st of February, which got an unbelievable response. More than 300,000 workers from textile mills, railways and other industries stopped work and came out onto the streets in all parts of the country. Barricades were erected. The workers and youth fought fierce street battles with the police and army. The striking sailors in Karachi captured the HMIS Hindustan and HMIS Bahadur which were anchored at Manora Island. These sailors made processions on the streets of Karachi in which a large number of people participated. The British military commander of Karachi sent two platoons of Baloch soldiers to crush them, but they refused to fire on their brothers. The British commanders then dispatched the most feared Gorkha Regiment who were considered to be the most loyal, ferocious, and vicious. The British commanders were dumbfounded when the Gorkhas also refused to obey their orders. Then the British soldiers were called in who opened fire, and the strikers also retaliated. The armed skirmishes continued for four hours. Six sailors were killed and more than thirty were injured. Trade unions called for a general strike, and the whole city came to a standstill. More than 35,000 people from all faiths, including Muslims and Sikhs, marched towards Eidgah and, despite all the repression and baton charges, they succeeded in amassing a large rally. More than 120,000 people hit the streets in Calcutta. Similar protests were held in other cities and towns. These strikes were a direct challenge to the British Raj. The Congress and Muslim League, hand in hand with the British imperialists, condemned the striking sailors and tried to diffuse the revolutionary situation in every possible manner. During these events, the Communist Party remained reluctant and failed to provide a concrete program. On the one hand, the party cadres and rank and file were fighting alongside the striking workers and sailors. On the other hand, the party leadership was trying to uphold the so-called “united front” with the local bourgeoisie, which was explicitly against the movement. In such circumstances the sailors had to surrender. At this occasion they released a message which is of historical significance:
“Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time, the blood of uniformed and non-uniformed workers flowed in one current for the same collective cause. We the workers in uniform shall never forget this. We also know that you, our proletarian brothers and sisters, shall also never forget this. The coming generations, learning its lessons shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live revolution”.
This countrywide rebellion, its possibilities, causes of its failure and the confusion of the Communist Party have been extensively discussed in the book. However, the real significance, seriousness and heat of the revolutionary movement of 1946 can be judged from the extracts of a letter written by P.V. Chuckraborty, former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, on the 30th of March 1976:
“When I was acting as Governor of West Bengal in 1956, Lord Clement Attlee, who as the British Prime Minister in the post war years was responsible for India’s freedom, visited India and stayed in Raj Bhavan, Calcutta for two days. I put it straight to him like this: ‘The Quit India Movement of Gandhi practically died out long before 1947 and there was nothing in the Indian situation at that time, which made it necessary for the British to leave India in a hurry. Why then did they do so?’ In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA and activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the very foundation of the British Empire in India, and the RIN Mutiny which made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British. When asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s 1942 movement, Attlee’s lips widened in a smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, ‘Minimal’”.
After these events, the British imperialists had made up their minds to leave India but decided not to leave behind a united, but a divided, India. They decided to end their rule with the same policy with which they founded it: divide and rule! Although, the progressive factions of the British Labour Party, which was in power at the time, didn’t want partition and were fearful of the imminent bloodbath. However, the more conservative factions of British imperialism led by Winston Churchill brought partition into reality through their handpicked Nehru. This unleashed an outbreak of pogroms, rape, and genocide, unprecedented in the history of the region, culminating in the religious dissection of one of the oldest civilizations. The social, cultural, and psychological trauma of this partition has been haunting these societies to this day. It was a historic tragedy. The festering wounds of partition have been tormenting the masses for the last seven decades. The ruling classes of Pakistan and India have been raking up these wounds ever since—promoting religious bigotry, extremism, chauvinism and warmongering. The impotent liberalism of the era and particularly of this region is incapable of fighting this menace of religious fundamentalism and war hysteria. The liberal factions of the ruling classes even themselves rely on such chauvinistic sloganeering for political point scoring. On a capitalist basis these countries can’t maintain peace, friendship or harmony. It is a reactionary reformist mirage. Nor can they go for a full-blown war (such chances are very minute for several reasons, including the possibility of a whole scale nuclear destruction which even imperialism won’t desire). However, religious fundamentalism and warmongering have become the bulwarks of the rotten capitalism in this part of the world.
Officially this partition is described as “independence”. However, it was merely a transfer of power from white rulers to the brown ones. These grafted ruling classes have been submissive, economically and politically, to their white masters to this day. National sovereignty is and will remain a farce in these crisis-ridden states. The exploitative system installed by the British imperialists is still intact. History is witness to the fact that the fate of the oppressed and the character of their oppression do not change with the change of the color or religion of the oppressors. After this sham independence, class exploitation and national oppression has only intensified. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and homelessness are the order of the day in the South Asian Subcontinent. Floods and other natural calamities claim thousands of lives every year. Corruption has become a norm of social life. Religious extremism is unbridled. Human behaviors have become harsh and bitter. Rape, sexual abuse and the murder of women and children keep on traumatizing the masses. These countries can rightly be marked as the most turbulent societies in the world where uncertainty and instability have become a norm. Such is the sum total of seven decades of independence. In order to modernize these societies, the countries of the region need immense resources which can’t be accumulated under crisis-ridden capitalism. In other words, the respite from poverty, hunger, diseases, and unemployment is not possible under capitalism. As long as scarcity persists and needs remain unfulfilled, there remains the ever-greater need of direct and indirect political oppression and terror. In such circumstances a healthy parliamentary democracy can’t be established.
History has proved time and again that capitalism has utterly failed in building modern and civilized societies in South Asia. Under such circumstances even the historical tasks of capitalism can only be fulfilled through a socialist revolution. Under the leadership of a revolutionary party the gigantic proletariat of this region is wholly capable of carrying out such a revolution. Revolutions not only change the courses of history but also the geography of the world. Among many other tasks, the socialist revolution in this region must fulfill the task of obliterating the bloody frontiers drawn by imperialism and unite the toilers of the South Asia on class lines. Not only the revolutions in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan but also the revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan are intimately linked with one another. Only Marxism can provide the ideological and political foundations upon which not only the strategy of socialist revolution can be chalked out, but also the foundation of the Socialist Federation of South Asia can be laid, defeating all odds, and wiping out all the national, religious, and lingual divisions. This is the only way to materialize the dream of a prosperous, peaceful and humane society—the only way that leads to the emancipation of the two billion souls of the region.
We hope that the Spanish translation of Lal Khan’s book, for which the credit goes to the comrades of International Socialist League (ISL) and MST, will enlighten the Spanish speaking population of the world about the history and Marxist analysis and perspectives of South Asia. This is an immense achievement of Marxist internationalism. Only on this basis can we carry forward the international revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalism worldwide.
13 June 2022
The terms South Asian Subcontinent, Indian Subcontinent and Subcontinent have been interchangeably used. Before the partition of 1947 the whole region used to be called India (or British India under British colonial rule). After the partition it was divided into India and Pakistan. Later on, in 1971, theEastern part of Pakistan separated in a bloody civil war and became Bangladesh. The South Asian Subcontinent primarily includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh along with some smaller states such as Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives. The terms South Asian/Indian subcontinent and South Asia are also often used interchangeably to denote the region, although the geopolitical term of South Asia frequently includes Afghanistan as well.