Muzaffar Ahmad, Calcutta, and Socialist Politics, 1913-1929

By Suchetana Chattopadhyay
Department of History, Jadavpur University, Calcutta-32, India

Bengal's first communists emerged from the ranks of the region's Muslim intelligentsia in the early 1920s. Their transformation involved a rejection of mainstream politics based on identities of 'nation' and 'community'. This process has been little investigated. This research aims to treat this neglected area by studying the early life and times (1913-1929) of Muzaffar Ahmad (1889-1973), the founder of the communist movement in Bengal and one of the earliest leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Though the left was minute during the 1920s, the shaping of socialist politics in Bengal during 1922-29 marked the beginning of a political tendency which was to leave its imprint on post-partition West Bengal and the struggle for Bangladesh in East Pakistan.

The origins of communism, a vital component of the organised socialist movement which emerged for the first time in Calcutta in the 1920s, was rooted in the appearance of Muslim intellectuals who tried to give shape to a new form of anti-imperialism by stepping out of the confines of mainstream nationalism dominated by the Bengali Hindu property-owning classes; of political movements based on perceptions of Muslim exclusivity; and of secular or ethno-linguistic identities. For these intellectuals, class ideology represented freedom from forms of exploitation and alienation: the other political options refused to address these adequately. Class itself was perceived as an identity, which would disappear when communist society was attained. Its emancipatory promise and transitory nature could be pitted against the non-emancipatory structure and the transcendental, essentialist claims of the dominant identities. This section regarded class-consciousness as a space beyond the politics of identities.

A social, and contextually grounded, interpretation of Bengal politics is developed by looking at the critical transitions Muzaffar Ahmad underwent in a period of momentous changes. Why was he alienated by dominant identity politics? What were the forms that he learnt to reject? What were the social components, which were subsumed and marginalised by these dominant forms, and which then introduced a critical rupture with his past? To seek answers to these and other related questions this thesis takes Muzaffar Ahmad's early career (1913-1929) as its chronological frame. 1913 was the year of his migration to Calcutta. 1929 marked the end of the first phase in his political career as a pioneer of the communist movement as it had emerged in Bengal and India of the 1920s. This was the year when leading communists were arrested and tried in the 'Meerut Communist Conspiracy Case' (1929-31), where Muzaffar Ahmad was chief among those accused. The biographical details of Muzaffar Ahmad between 1913 and 1929 coincided with a significant phase in the social and political history of India and the world. These years can also be read as two crisis-points in the history of imperialism and capitalism: 1913, the eve of the First World War, and 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash which set off the 'great depression'. They enclose a period within which socialist ideas and communist activity became politically familiar in different parts of the globe. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Third Communist International directly boosted these currents. Socialism came to be perceived by many in the colonising and colonised countries as a viable alternative and a solution to the problems posed by capitalism and imperialism in the midst of economic crisis and war. A radicalisation of political culture could be felt among the intelligentsia in various urban centres of the world, Calcutta being no exception. Many socially alienated, economically distressed and politically dissatisfied urban intellectuals stood at the crossroads of established and radical identity-formations. Among them there was a small 'fraction' informed by social radicalism from below and the leftward turn in literary and cultural fields. They were disaffiliating themselves from the more established political routes open to those from their social background to combat colonialism and affiliating themselves with a more radical vision of decolonisation. The radicalism of the period was not devoid of contradictions. The ideas and aspirations of those with radical potential were often intertwined with social institutions, political movements and cultural norms that could lead to reversal and retreat from left radicalism. Nevertheless, they bore the imprint of the desire for a redefinition of state and society.

It is in this climate, which found reflection in the unionisation of workers and the socialistic wavering of middle-class intellectuals touched by left currents, that Muzaffar Ahmad could be located. The 'reshuffling' and mutations of self that gave rise to his new political identity were rooted in this context. It was related to a complex process of disaffiliation from existing structures of anti-colonial politics and linked to a radical conjuncture created by the post-war mass upsurge, by material hardship and by growing contact with the world of labour. It was underlined by a break with the outlook of mainstream leaders and the dominant ideologies they represented.

This thesis sets out to examine both the setting and the changes, as represented by Muzaffar. It analyses the context and significance of Muzaffar's migration to the city (1913-1919). His rural background in the remote East Bengal island of Sandwip, and the kind of identity-thinking such a milieu encouraged, are discussed. Next treated are his arrival in Calcutta, the only metropolis in Bengal, on the eve of the First World War, and the conditions in the city that contributed to his future radicalisation. Examined in particular are his experiences as an impoverished intellectual and Bengali Muslim cultural activist in a city undergoing wartime privations. The next chapter (1919-21) deals with Muzaffar's political transformation along leftist lines, in the context of the working-class upsurge in Calcutta and the impact, on Muzaffar and some of his contemporaries, of socialist ideas following the success of the Russian Revolution. Muzaffar's fully-fledged entry into political journalism and his growing sensitivity to the labour question are shown to have played a vital role. The following chapter (1922-24) deals with the first socialist nucleus in Calcutta, with Muzaffar as the principal organiser. During this period, his links with the Communist Third International, distribution of banned socialist literature, and communications with other anti-colonial radicals led to his arrest and trial in the 'Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case' (1924). The next two chapters examine the growth and activities of the first socialist organisation in Bengal (1926-29), including Muzaffar's role and the attendant constraints, contradictions and ideological occlusions. The following two chapters analyse the changing politics of Muzaffar's prose and the emergence of a 'language of class' and treats his autobiographical writings as a prism through which his early career can be read. The conclusion explains the transformation of Muzaffar Ahmad's political identity as an example of the emergence of communist dominated socialist politics in a colonised Indian urban milieu.

By investigating the roots of early communism and socialist politics in Bengal, through the personality of Muzaffar Ahmad, this research aims to locate the social significance of a political space, which attempted to transcend dominant notions of identity. At a time when spectres of Hindu majoritarianism and communal holocaust are revisiting India and history is being harnessed to erect new enclosures based on identities of 'nation' and 'community' in a global climate of violent late-imperialist assertions, this is a way of recording not just the amply documented strength but also the ever-present contradictions, which beset identity-formations.