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Trotskyism in India

Part One: Origins Through World War Two (1935-45)

[part II of II for the Trotsky Project Document Archive]

From Revolutionary History, Vol.1 No.4, Winter 1988-89. Used by permission.

Organizing the All-India Party

In March 1939 at the annual Congress session in Tripuri, Leslie Goonewardene met Murray Gow Purdy and invited him to visit Ceylon. [48] Purdy went, but was horrified to discover that the LSSP’s leaders weren’t professional revolutionaries, but lived quite comfortably, pursued professional careers, and in some cases were quite wealthy. It was too much for the apostle of violent revolution and the harijan party. Back in India, Purdy put out a slanderous pamphlet, Millionaire Trotskyists of Ceylon. [49] Thus began Purdy’s hostility to what would become the BLPI.

Philip Gunawardena met Kamalesh Banerji in Calcutta on his way back to Ceylon after attending the Congress session at Ramgarh in March 1940. After Philip Gunawardena’s visit, collaboration quickly developed between the Colombo and Calcutta Trotskyists. In late 1940, the Samasamajists and Calcutta group took the next step toward, launching an Indian organisation. As recalled by Leslie Goonewardene:

A pre-conference was held in Kandy in December 1940 at which N.M. [Perera], Philip [Gunawardena], Colvin [de Silva], Doric [de Soura], Robert [Gunawardena], Reggie Senanayake, Kamalesh Bannerji, Bernard [Soysa], and I were present. Here it was resolved to form a party of India, Burma and Ceylon. A decision was also taken to send Samasamajists across to India, beginning with Bernard. This meeting took place under the tightest secrecy. N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, and Colvin R. de Silva, who were in Bogambara Prison in Kandy, attended with the connivance of their jailer, who agreed to let them slip away for the night provided they return in the morning. Leslie Goonewardene, wanted by the police, was the LSSP’s underground organiser. Robert Gunawardena was responsible for the party’s legal front work.
V. Balasingham went to South India. Doric de Souza and Bernard Soysa made several trips to Calcutta, and through the Bannerji group met Shastri. In Bombay the Samasamajist emissaries again met Purdy, who introduced them to Chandravadan Shukla. Purdy, competing with the Samasamajists, tried to broker unity with the Shukla, Shastri, and Calcutta groups, but failed every time. [50]

The Samasamajists held a follow-up meeting in Ceylon in March 1941:

After Bernard went across and made the arrangements, Shastri, Kamalesh and Indra Sen came to Ceylon, and at a conference at which they were present, the earlier decision to form an all-India Party was re-affirmed. It was also decided to draft the programme of the party. [51]

The programme for an Indian Trotskyist party was outlined at this meeting. [52] Reflecting the progress made at this meeting, the secret LSSP conference held the following month approved a proposal for the LSSP to function as the Ceylon unit of the larger party that was being created. The revised programme affirmed the integral link between the Ceylon and Indian revolution: ‘the revolution in Ceylon is dependent on and is indeed an integral part of the Indian revolution’.

After the Ceylon preconferences, more Samasamajists crossed over to India. Leslie and Vivienne Goonewardene, Hector Abhayavardhana and S.C.C. Anthonipillai went to Madras. Kamalesh Bannerji, Bernard Soysa, and Leslie Goonewardene visited Bombay, and Shukla was recruited to the venture. Shukla had a printing press – a priceless resource. His Bolshevik Mazdoor Party (BMP) had started an underground journal, Bolshevik Leninist, from Bombay. His followers up in Gujarat put out an illegal press, Inkilah (Revolution), which had a primitive Trotskyist content. It denounced Congress as compromisers, blasted the Stalinists’ and Royists’ pro-war treachery, raised the slogan ‘Defend Soviet Russia’, and called for factory committees to fight for economic demands. [53] The BMP raised the slogan, ‘Not one paisa [penny], not one man for the imperialist war!’ and called for ‘councils (soviets) of the elected representatives of workers, peasants, and soldiers in preparation for the revolutionary process.’ [54]

BLPI launched

Plans to launch the BLPI were postponed by arrests in the summer of 1941. In Calcutta the police pounced on Indra Sen, Kamalesh Bannerji, Bernard Soysa, Doric de Souza and his wife. The Samasamajists were arrested and interrogated. Doric de Souza and Bernard Soysa slipped away to Bombay. Indra Sen was interned.

The organising meeting of the BLPI finally took place in Calcutta during November 1941. [55] The programme drafted after the Ceylon meeting in March was discussed. The Formation Committee of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma was created. The name reflected the goal of the Fourth Internationalists to create a subcontinental federation of Trotskyist parties. As it turned out, Burma was soon occupied by Japan and nothing was ever started there. A Provisional Committee was elected to carry through the organising work. The working committee evidently included Leslie Goonewardene, Kamalesh Bannerji, Onkarnath Shastri, and Soma Ramanathan of Tanjore. [56] The draft programme was then discussed by the groups in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, UP and Gujarat.

The Trotskyists working in India were soon joined by more Samasamajists. N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunawardena, and Edmund Samarakkody were spirited out of prison on 7 April 1942 and, except for Samarakkody, crossed over to Madras on fishing boats from Valvettiturai. [57] From Madras Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera moved to Bombay, where Shukla was operating. S.C.C. Anthonipillai and V. Karalasingham. two Tamil LSSPers, also crossed over to Madras.

The BLPI was formally launched in May 1942 as a democratic-centralist organisation. Only a select few attended the secret meeting in Bombay, which brought together the LSSP and the Indian groups (Banneji, Shastri, and Shukla). Organisationally, the party had Units in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and UP. The party Centre and printing press were in Bombay. A Bombay District Committee was to be responsible for integrating Shukla’s BMP up in Gujarat. The UP Unit consisted of Shastri’s followers (Kanpur, Allahabad), while the Bengal Unit was the Bannerji/Sen circle supplemented with Samasamajists. Madras was entirely run by Samasamajists. Altogether, there were probably several dozen Trotskyists.

The Bolshevik Leninist became the BLPI’s theoretical journal. The first issue that appeared in the name of the BLPI carried a statement on the war by Leslie Goonewardene. [58] The Trotskyist position (defeat of all capitalist belligerents through revolution, defence only of the USSR) had a powerful appeal in India, especially in contrast to the pro-war, no-struggle line of the Stalinists, who smeared its opponents as a ‘Fifth Column of Fascism’. Even Gandhi’s Congress publicly quoted favourably from the Trotskyists’ anti-war position. [59]

On the programmatic level, the new party was well armed. The BLPI programme was a powerful document, superior to even the revised LSSP programme of 1941, reflecting the contribution of the Indian Trotskyists. It was immediately reprinted by the American and British Trotskyists. [60] It opened with slogans that boldly declared the aims of the party:

The Draft Programme analysed the development of capitalism in India, the role of the various classes, and the importance of the agrarian revolution, and it applied with considerable skill the Trotskyist theory of Permanent Revolution. It was razor sharp in characterising Congress: ‘The main instrument whereby the Indian bourgeoisie seek to maintain control over the national movement is the Indian National Congress, the classic party of the Indian capitalist class, seeking as it does the support of the petty bourgeoisie and if possible of the workers, for their own aims.’ The BLPI programme adapted the demands of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme to the Indian context. So, at least on paper, it stood for political trade union work, a unique distinction on the Indian left.

International contacts were also coming into the picture in this period. The first effort to contact Trotsky himself had been made in 1939 by Selina Perera (N.M. Perera’s wife). From London she visited the American SWP, which made plans for her to go to Mexico. Unfortunately, her trip to Mexico was botched and she never crossed the border. [62] Trotsky’s letter (December 1939) to an ‘Indian comrade’ was actually to her. [63]

‘Russian Question’

Trotsky asked the youthful Sherman Stanley, one of his secretaries and an India buff, to make a tour of South Asia and the Far East. [64] Before Stanley actually left, however, factional struggle erupted in the SWP over the ‘Russian question’, precipitated by the Stalin-Hitler Pact and the Soviet military advance into Finland and eastern Poland. Sherman Stanley (Max Shachtman’s nephew) sided with the Shachtman-Burnham minority, which rejected unconditional defence of the USSR. Stanley’s trip, then, turned into a factional tour.

In 1940 Stanley visited Ceylon and India, where he met Bannerji’s RSL, Purdy, and Minoo Masani. [65] After Stanley’s visit(August 1940), the RSL put out its first signed leaflet. [66] Stanley’s report, published in an internal bulletin of Shachtman’s Workers Party, described the Calcutta RSL:

Although the group is very small and exists primarily on the literary-propaganda level, nevertheless it is made up of fine elements with a sound education. Its centre is in the city of C – [Calcutta], with one branch (trade-unionists) in the great industrial city of C – [Cawnpore (Kanpur)]. The league is alive, functioning and publishes a monthly magazine in the Hindustani language [Avaz, presumably]. I met often with these comrades and together we analysed the general situation, from which we drew up a programme of practical action. The carrying out of this programme can only lead to growth of the group, for everything lies in its favour.
On the question of Russia’s participation in the world war, all of them were and remain in absolute agreement with our position. They had come to these conclusions long before my arrival and although acquainted with Trotsky’s attitude from the public press could not understand or approve of it for a moment. Their political statements are in accordance with our policy.
The problem of MCP [Murray Gow Purdy] of B— [Bombay] has, I believe, been satisfactorily solved by his agreement at my insistance that he place himself entirely under the direction of the RSLI. P— to date has been an abysmal failure totally isolated and without a single follower. He has agreed to withdraw and destroy his pamphlet [Millionaire Trotskyists of Ceylon, presumably] and attempt to integrate himself into the genuine group. [67]

Shachtman’s newspaper broke the news of ‘this new section’. [68] As it turned out, however, none of those contacted by Stanley supported the revisionist Shachtman-Burnham line once they found out the real story. The SWP gleefully rubbed it in the Shachtmanites’ faces. [69] Stanley was also wrong about Purdy, who wrote to the SWP in March 1941:

I should like to say that I am now as before – 100% in support of your policy and ideas. The policy of Messrs. Burnham, Shachtman, Sherman Stanley and Abern is obviously wrong on each of the disputed issues ... Stanley’s ideas of the business in the Indian empire, and especially about Ceylon, have to be thoroughly scrutinised. The opinions he enunciated here were fundamentally wrong. Neither the aristocratic planters of Ceylon nor the stockbrokers of Calcutta are suitable representatives for our business in India. [70]

Needless to say, ‘the aristocratic planters of Ceylon’ refers to the LSSP leaders, and ‘the stockbrokers of Calcutta’ to the RSL’s wealthy patron, Bal Krishna Gupta. Purdy hadn’t changed a bit.

With the war well underway Trotskyists in India and Ceylon had only tenuous links with supporters abroad. Correspondence and illegal leaflets trickled through. [71] SWP sailors who put ashore in Colombo and Calcutta were able to rendezvous with comrades. An eyewitness report gives the feel for the times:

I am happiest to be able to report that there is a growing Trotskyist movement in India. The Trotskyists I talked with were extremely optimistic about the future of the Fourth International in their country. They already have groups in a number of cities and are planning the consolidation of these groups into an All-India party as soon as possible.
I also learned that, contrary to reports circulated in the United States sometime ago, they are and have from the beginning been in full agreement with the position of the Socialist Workers Party for the defence of the Soviet Union.
The Fourth Internationalists in India are composed mainly of workers and have been winning over more and more union militants. Of course, they are functioning under very difficult illegal conditions. Some of the Indian comrades are in prison.
They are publishing a paper, called The Spark – named after Lenin’s paper, Iskra. In the formation of their party, and as a guide for its organisational methods, they are trying to apply the teachings of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? [72]

The reference to The Spark points at Chandravadan Shukla’s BMP. The Kathiawad Committee of the BMP (Shukla’s supporters in Bhauvnagar) put out a Gujarati-language sheet, Tanakha (Spark). The first issue declared the BMP to be the Indian Section of the Fourth International and featured Trotsky’s Open Letter to the Workers of India in Gujarati. [73]

The August Struggle and the ‘1942 split’

No sooner had the BLPI been launched than it was swept up in the August Struggle, the most insurrectionary movement since the 1857 Mutiny. It was a political baptism of fire for the BLPI. The August Struggle was overwhelmingly petit-bourgeois in character, an explosive paroxysm by students, the urban middle class, and the rural masses. Politically, the BLPI appeared as the extreme left wing of the labour movement, hammering away at the need for a working class perspective.

The August Struggle polarised the party leadership. The opportunist wing of the old LSSP rebelled, leading to a de facto split. What is often called the ‘1942 LSSP split’ actually was fought out in India, precipitated by the August Struggle. At bottom, it was a fight over what kind of party would lead the Indian struggle for liberation-proletarian revolutionary or petit-bourgeois radical?

Japan’s advance through the Pacific and into Burma transformed Indian politics. Congress, emboldened by Britain’s difficulties, went from conditional support to open opposition, seeking to force a settlement with British imperialism. On 8 August 1942 Congress called for mass civil disobedience to pressurise the British to ‘quit India’. The British panicked. Within twelve hours every important Congress leader was in jail or on his way. News of the arrests brought thousands onto the streets of Bombay Barricades went up, and crowds battled with the police. The August Struggle had begun.

From Bombay the protests spread like wildfire. Government buildings were torched, rail lines uprooted and police stations besieged. Spontaneous strikes took place. Literally millions chanted ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ – ‘Long Live Revolution!’ But there was no revolutionary leadership. Radical students rushed headlong into the vanguard. Congress Socialists became leaders on the spot. Congress leaders deplored the violence, while the Stalinists and Royists actively opposed the struggle, warning workers to stay clear of the ‘Fifth Column’ and fingering militants to the police. Thus in the critical opening round, the powerful Bombay proletariat – 300 000 workers with militant traditions of struggle densely concentrated in huge mills – remained on the sidelines, passive. Had the battalions of labour swung into action, soviets would have been on the order of the day.

There was no question that the peasants would have supported workers’ power in the cities. In fact, after the initial upsurge in the cities, the struggle spread and intensified in villages across India. In some areas, such as Bihar, peasants drove out the police, and set up little ‘Congress Raj’ governments. Jails were opened. In some instances, Congress prisoners who were liberated denounced the violence and voluntarily went back to their cells. Retaliation was swift and savage. Thousands were killed as police ran amok, troops and tanks were deployed, and fighter planes sent against villages. The struggle was forced underground everywhere. Leadership, such as existed, was in the hands of petty-bourgeois radicals, notably the Congress Socialists, Bose’s Forward Bloc, and other leftists, who took to military adventurism, sabotage and terrorism in a futile effort to sustain the scattered rural struggles and revive the movement in the cities. The Congress Socialists urged workers to leave the factories and return to their home villages. Their struggles, though often courageous, were impotent gestures of rage or self-sacrifice, having nothing in common with a revolutionary perspective, i.e., struggle for working class power. Unable to lead the working class, the Congress Socialists tried to stampede it.

The Trotskyists plunged into the struggle, attempting to direct it politically and tactically. The BLPI was not yet prepared to intervene on an all-India basis, even as a propaganda league, much less as a combat party. It issued a leaflet in Bombay on 9 August (the day the struggle erupted) pledging support to ‘any mass action that the Congress may take against British imperialism’ while warning that ‘Congress, which is dominated by Indian bourgeois interests, in all critical situations acts as the instrument of the Indian bourgeoisie’. It posed the key issue of igniting agrarian revolution in the struggle for power:

The slogans of “Abolition of Landlordism without Compensation” and “Cancellation of Peasant Debt” must be leading slogans of the struggle. Not only no-tax campaigns against the government, but also no-rent campaigns against all landlords, must be commenced on the widest possible scale, leading to the seizure of land by the peasants through Peasants’ Committees.
Manning the nerve centres of the economy, the workers are in the position to deal the most devastating blows against imperialism ... A mass general political strike against British imperialism will paralyse and bring to a stop the whole carefully built up machinery of imperialist administration.
The Indian soldiers, who are peasants in uniform, cannot fail to be affected by the agrarian struggle against landlordism and imperialism. [74]

Other leaflets called for the formation of strike committees and organised workers’ defence guards. The party also directed well-aimed propaganda at British and American troops, showing how their anti-fascist sentiments were being perverted to serve the imperialists. The BLPI blasted the CPI as ‘pimps and procurers’ for imperialism, while raising the slogan ‘Defend the Soviet Union’. [75]

In Bombay the BLPI’s intervention was limited to propaganda, since the party had no roots yet. In Calcutta, however, the Trotskyists had a history in the Bengal Provincial Students Federation and other student groups, where they were able to organise demonstrations. In Madras and Madura the Trotskyists took part in strikes and demonstrations, issuing propaganda in Tamil. A number of militants were thus won to the BLPI.

Many BLPI members were arrested and imprisoned during the first weeks, as the British ferociously beat back the movement. Kamalesh Bannerji was arrested in September, and held without trial for the duration of the war. Indra Sen was interned to his home away from Calcutta. Onkarnath Shastri was arrested in Kanpur. Most of the Samasamajists fortunately evaded arrest, but were in constant danger of discovery. Travel was risky, and communication with other areas restricted.


The Stalinists were out to crush the BLPI, too. The CPI press viciously slandered the Trotskyists as ‘criminals and gangsters who help the Fascists’ by allegedly calling for ‘strikes, sabotage, food riots and all forms of anarchy’ and ‘attempting to stir up trouble in all war industries’. [76] ‘Trotskyite-traitors’, declared the CPI in a 1943 conference resolution, ‘must he treated by every honest Indian as the worst enemy of the nation and driven out of political life and exterminated’. [77] This was no idle threat. Stalinists from Ceylon were brought over to India to hunt for Samasamajists, and CPI stool-pigeons fingered militants to the police during the war. [78]

Forced underground, the BLPI used its journals – the Bolshevik Leninist, published in Bombay, and Permanent Revolution, just started in Calcutta – to hammer home the lessons of the August Struggle, why it was defeated and what it would take to win next time. In was an enormous accomplishment just to maintain a clandestine press in conditions comparable to Nazi-occupied Europe. These journals were among the best produced by Trotskyists, anywhere, during the war.

The BLPI went straight to the key issue of power:

... the fact was that, at the very outset of the upsurge, when imperialism took the offensive against it, the question of power automatically emerged. The effort at demonstration was immediately transformed into a struggle for the possession of the streets. This led to a direct clash with those instruments of the imperialist state, the police and military. Such a contest could not be won without purposeful direction and organised mass action. It was, however, in these very characteristics that the movement was most lacking. Consequently the movement never really went beyond the proportions of a violent political demonstration, and when it met the full blast of organised state repression, it collapsed. [79] (original emphasis)

What was urgently needed, it continued, was for the working class to be mobilised at the head of the insurgent nation. Given the Stalinists’ stranglehold on the workers, the burning question of the hour was ‘how to short-circuit the official leadership of the working class organisations and get through to the worker masses:

The BLPI aggressively polemicised against the Congress Socialists and other petit-bourgeois parties that had emerged as leaders.

The supreme need of the hour is the mobilisation and consolidation of the revolutionary elements of the country under the leadership of the vanguard of the proletariat which alone is capable of waging an uncompromising struggle. We appeal to the revolutionaries disillusioned with the vacillations of the Congress and the oscillations of petit-bourgeois radicals to join our ranks. The other left parties, notably the CSP, are by their very essence centrist organisations. Centrism has no place in the clash of irreconcilable camps. The programmes of these parties are in no way different form that of the Congress. Theirs is only an aggressive nationalism. What we need above all is a programme that reflects the needs and aspirations of the exploited millions. The programme of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party is the programme of the masses. [80]

Thus the BLPI took a firm class stand in the face of considerable petit-bourgeois pressures. If there was a weakness, on the literary level, it was a certain abstractness. The whole situation had cried out for immediate, aggressive united front tactics directed toward the Congress Socialists, Forward Bloc, and Congress militants who stood for anti-imperialist struggle.

The August Struggle exacerbated differences already simmering among the Samasamajists. The 1941 decision to launch an Indian party had opened fissures in the LSSP ranks and leadership. Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera opposed the whole BLPI venture, arguing that Trotskyists in India should join the Congress Socialist Party rather than form a Trotskyist group. [81] Gunawardena and Perera led the revolt in the name of the Workers Opposition. The pro-BLPI Samasamajists formed the Bolshevik-Leninist faction. Evidently Gunawardena and Perera had significant support among the old LSSP’s ranks and periphery. [82] In Ceylon a party conference was convened in 1943 where the Workers Opposition outvoted the Bolshevik-Leninists.

Gunawardena argued that the BLPI ‘was launched with insufficient preparation by immature and unreliable political elements’ who were ‘no more than romantics at the time’. Citing Trotsky’s Open Letter to the Workers of India (1938), Gunawardena argued,

The Trotskyists of India did not follow Comrade Trotsky’s advice and enter the Congress Socialist Party and other mass organisations. Had they joined the CSP and other mass organisations, then during the 1942-43 struggle we could have popularised the principles and programme of Trotskyism and won to the banner of the Fourth International all genuine revolutionaries in the CSP and other mass organisations. We could have participated along with Congress Socialists in the mass activities of that struggle. The Congress Socialist Party gained in influence as a result of its participation and leadership of mass actions. [83]

Trotsky urged Indian revolutionaries to ‘actively participate’ in the CSP, not necessarily to enter it. He deliberately avoided specific tactical advice, because of his general unfamiliarity with the Indian scene. [84] In any case, Gunawardena’s idea of ‘active participation’ was very different from Trotsky’s. Gunawardena uncritically embraced the petit-bourgeois guerrilla bands (Congress Socialists, Forward Bloc, etc). In a 1943 article in Bolshevik Leninist, he let the cat out of the bag:

Bolshevik-Leninists do not disavow any form of struggle. They do not lecture the masses in revolt. They are students in the school of practice. They believe that everything that is spontaneous is necessary. They are trying to give conscious expression to the spontaneously developed procedure of the masses. The BLP of India supports unreservedly the struggle against British Imperialism, including all acts of sabotage in which the masses participate. [85]

Gunawardena concluded: ‘It is the task of the party of the working class to give a leadership to these scattered peasant revolts by actually participating in them.’ In other words, the BLPI should take the path not of Lenin’s Bolsheviks but of the Russian SR party under Czarism.

Doric de Souza, a youthful leader of the Bolshevik-Leninist faction, wrote a thinly-veiled polemic against Gunawardena in Permanent Revolution:

Certain limits are given to this “actual participation” by the level of development of the party, and by the scope and extent of the working class struggle itself. “Actual participation” under the given conditions of the present limits itself to the propaganda of bold agrarian slogans (propaganda by every means, including work in, and the influencing of mass organisations among the peasantry), bringing to the forefront the social issues of the countryside, the overthrow of landlordism, the transfer of the land to the cultivator, the abolition of rural debt, etc. ...
In the absence of proletarian struggle on a revolutionary scale in the cities of India, no party can bring “working class leadership” artificially to the village struggle: in the process such a party would only de-class itself as the CP of China became a peasant party from 1926-29 onwards ...
The method [of sabotage] bears the classimpress of the petit-bourgeois. and offers (of itself) no challenge to the property relations of the established order. [86]

At bottom, Gunawardena and Perera were in revolt against the BLPI as a ‘hard’, democratic-centralist organisation. In a soft, Social-Democratic party (pre-war LSSP, CSP) they could pursue their (respective) opportunist appetites. Although the differences were ostensibly over ‘tactics’, in hindsight it is clear that this split was analogous to the initial Bolshevik-Menshevik division over the organisation question. Philip Gunawardena, the ‘father of Ceylonese Marxism’, had been corrupted in the LSSP. He had put on a nationalist-populist mask in the State Council for four years, and the mask had become the face.

As others have observed before, Philip Gunawardena was always one step ahead of everyone else. In his better days, he was the first to become a Trotskyist, the others followed. On the way down, he wanted to liquidate the BLPI into the Congress Socialists in 1942. His opponents carried out that very line six years later. He resurrected the ‘old’ LSSP in 1945, and the Bolshevik-Leninists rejoined it in 1950. He joined the first Popular Front in the 1950s, and the others followed suit in 1964.

The fight in Bombay came to an abrupt halt when in July 1943 the police, acting on information supplied by a Stalinist who had infiltrated one of N.M. Perera’s study circles, raided BLPI residences in Bombay and Madras. [87] In Bombay, Philip and Kusuma Gunawardena and Bernard Soysa were arrested. Perera was nabbed in Ahmedabad. In Madras, Robert Gunawardena, Lionel Cooray, and Reggie Senanayake were arrested. The Samasamajists were deported to Ceylon and jailed. More arrests (a half dozen or so cadres in Bombay) followed later in July.

What N.M. Perera experienced in jail was typical:

To keep away the obnoxious smells that emanated from the toilets he was forced to start smoking. Within fourteen days he lost twenty five pounds. He was locked up with criminals suffering from all kinds of communicable diseases, ranging from typhoid to leprosy and venereal diseases ... The rice was really shoved through an iron opening and collected all the dust and rust by the time it reached the prisoner’s hands. [88]

The BLPI had been hit with two body blows – first the arrests during the August Movement, now these. The Bombay unit was in a bad shape. Indra Sen was sent from Bengal, where he broke house arrest, to Bombay to try to salvage something. [89]


To make matters worse, after the arrests in Bombay, Chandravadan Shukla defected from the party, taking the printing press and Bolshevik Leninist with him. From the start, when he joined the BLPI, he was very protective of his printing press and wanted to preserve his control over his followers in Gujarat, who continued to used the name BMP. [90] Shukla admitted his differences were mainly personal when he met with British Trotskyists a few years later:

‘The split was justified mainly on personal grounds, i.e., the resolution in the BLP to place the press under the control of the Bombay DC [District Committee] reflected on Comrade Shukla’s ability to run it. The party posts were monopolised by Ceylonese comrades, etc. Also was added the dangerous partiality shown to the Workers Opposition Faction by the Centre group headed by Comrade Tilak (Leslie Goonewardene): the certainty that the Workers Opposition Fraction was an anti-Bolshevik tendency that was on the point of capturing the Party. [91]

Whether or not Leslie Goonewardene was soft on Gunawardena and Perera is unclear. It should be noted that, whatever his other differences, Shukla had a personal grudge against Philip Gunawardena, who once physically assaulted Shukla at a meeting of the Bolshevik Leninist editorial board in Leslie Goonewardene’s flat. [92]

After the police raids of July 1943 Shukla resumed independent functioning in the name of the BMP. The BLPI’s Permanent Revolution denounced ‘the theft of the party press at that critical moment [the July police raids] ... by a group of unscrupulous political adventurers (the so-called “Bolshevik Mazdoor Party”)’ [93] The BMP had no ostensible political differences with the BLPI. Shukla continued to put out Bolshevik Leninist irregularly as well as agitational leaflets. [94] The BMP recruited a number of students and intellectuals, while the BLPI was trying to rebuild a Bombay unit, which was flattened again by arrests in early 1945. [95]

The BLPI also had to contend with Murray Gow Purdy in Bombay. After the BLPI was launched, Purdy countered by forming his own little group, the Mazdoor Trotskyist Party of India. Purdy had recruited a handful of devotees, who generally were subjectively revolutionary, very activist working class organisers. B. Mallikarjun Rao had come to Bombay in 1937 from Andhra, attended Sydenham College, became assistant secretary of the Bombay Girni Kamgar Union (mill workers), then the largest CPI-led union, and also worked for the Free Press Journal and the Bombay Chronicle. [96] After joining Purdy’s group, he moved to Hyderabad, where he was a prominent leader in building a large, militant railway workers’ union. Sitaram B. Kolpe also worked as a journalist for the Free Press Journal and became a leader of the All-India Journalists Union. Murlidhar Parija, who had got a copy of Purdy’s 1938 programme from an old Russian Bolshevik working on the Bombay docks, became a leader of the Engineering Workers Union. [97]

In May 1942 Purdy issued the draft programme of the MTP. [98] It was considerably toned down, without the violent rhetoric, and he dropped his pet theory of the Harijan vanguard. Purdy was still hostile to the BLPI:

The Mazdoor Trotskyist Party has no connection with the Revolutionary Socialist League of Calcutta or the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, which consists of nearly similar personnel under another name: nor with the other sub-division of the same group calling itself the Bolshevik Workers Party. These three groups of petit bourgeois are fundamentally similar and organisationally connected to the capitalistic Sama Samaj Party of Ceylon. We Trotskyists will have nothing to do with middle class bourgeois “Socialist” parties, which had until recently a multi-millionaire and today has many rich members upon its committee. [99]

For all its Trotskyist pretentions, Purdy’s revised programme had no trace of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, and compared to the BLPI’s programme, it was exceedingly simplistic. The MTP started an underground paper in English with the Hindi title Kranti (Revolution). [100] Purdy also published a book on South Africa. [101]

Purdy went underground in the ‘Quit India’ struggle. He called for ‘revolutionary satyagraha committees’, an oxymoron (satyagraha means ‘peaceful noncooperation’). His followers made good on his earlier exhortation to insurrectionary violence. Ambika Singh, a former terrorist recruited by Purdy, led armed peasants into clashes with the police in Jaunpur and Sultanpur, for which he was sentenced to death, but later released under popular pressure. [102] In Secundarabad, Mallikarjun Rao was one of the leaders of a rail strike. and the Purdyites evidently were involved in sabotage.


With the ebb of the August struggle Purdy’s people took to ‘revolutionary expropriations’ (robbery), just as some of the Russian revolutionaries had done in the aftermath of the failed 1905 Revolution. In one late in the war Purdy and one Edward Dennis Gee impersonated military men, assaulted a diamond merchant, and made off with currency and gold worth 180,000 rupees, a huge sum even now. [103] They were caught, sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, and incarcerated in Bombay’s Arthur Road jail. During the trial Purdy made a dramatic escape and hid for a week in a hut disguised as a Muslim. Back in prison, Purdy, his comrade Mallikarjun Rao, and two others tried to escape, but failed. Purdy was sent to Yeravada Jail in Poona, where he was kept right up to independence in 1947. These Trotskyists were no wimps.

The Grim Years Underground

The ebb of the August Struggle ushered in a black period of reaction, demoralisation, and death. The British crushed the movement with a vengeance, and widespread demoralisation and political apathy set in. In 1943 famine stalked Bengal, and millions perished. As the war economy tightened, rampant inflation and shortages pauperised the petit bourgeoisie. The working class was restless but under the thumb of the Stalinists and Congress bureaucrats. Communalist organisations like the Muslim League (patronised by the British against Congress) and Hindu Maha Sabha grew, while union ranks thinned.

Once again the Congress Right angled for compromise. In early 1944 Gandhi offered to support the war in return for Congress representation in a National Government under imperialism. The CPI applauded, because this was substantially the same as its ‘National Government for National Unity and National Defence’. Thus, whether or not the CPI rejoined Congress or got seats in this government, it would clearly be a Popular Front, a re-run of the Congress Ministries of 1937-39, but even more reactionary. Not only had Gandhi dropped the call for Indian independence, but he was offering to help run the country while Indian troops were used to restore British power in Burma. Not only would Congress now uphold the ‘slave constitution: but it would be the jailer for militants of the August Struggle. Most of the Congress Left was already in jail, and Gandhi now called for fugitives to turn themselves in.


The BLPI’s work for the duration of the war had to be carried out under conditions of de facto illegality. The Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Units functioned autonomously. After Onkarnath Shastri’s arrest in 1942 all contact was lost with his followers in UP and Bihar. In June 1943 the BLPI Provisional Committee soberly assessed the conjuncture and reaffirmed party building as the ‘urgent task’. [104]

In Bombay the unit limped along and morale was low. Some work was carried out in the CPI-controlled Girni Kamgar Union, but the union movement was in decline. Shukla’s BMP capitalised n the BLPI’s weakness and managed to recruit students. In Calcutta, now the party centre, a modest foothold in the textile mills outside Calcutta was gained, but without immediate payoff. The student work in the Bengal Student Congress was more productive, headed by capable young Bengali intellectuals (Suprova Roy, P.K. Roy). The Bengal Committee continued to put out Permanent Revolution and published several pamphlets during 1943-44. [105]

The party’s greatest gains were made in South India, in Madras and Madura, where work had been begun by the Samasamajist Balasingham in 1941. During the war the BLPI developed fractions in the huge Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, the base of the Madras Labour Union, the oldest registered union in India. The BLPI also developed a fraction in the important MSM Railway workshops. [106] The working class in Madras Province was politically backward, but extremely militant. Congress dominated politics; the left, including the Congress Socialists, was virtually nonexistent. The BLPI had a student activist who was a member of the Madras Congress Committee. He organised and led the first post-1942 demonstration in Madras and rallied broad support against attempts by the Congress High Command to expel him as a Trotskyist. Leslie Goonewardene, Hector Abhayavardhana, and S.C.C. Anthonipillai played key roles in the Madras Unit.

The BLPI held its first representative all-India conference in Madras on 20-25 September 1944. [107] The party debated and adopted the Political Committee’s theses. [108] This resolution addressed the key issue of a possible National Government, aptly characterised as ‘a government of the native exploiters under British imperialism’ and ‘an alliance of the feudalists, the Indian bourgeoisie, and the imperialists against the masses’. It argued, ‘whether the CP is accepted within the Congress fold or not, it will make itself an agency within the working class for the Congress far more effective than the CSP has been, or could ever be’. But the resolution didn’t characterise the would-be National Government as a blueprint for a Popular Front and clearly state the BPLI’s opposition to its election. It simply stated that the National Government would unlock the situation and ‘initiate a change in the mass mood’, opening possibilities for renewed struggles, in which the BLPI would intervene. One could read this as an implicit argument for some kind of ‘critical support’ to the Popular Front.

During 1944-45 the Congress-Stalinist campaign for a National Government dominated politics. The Congress Socialists, the heroes and veterans of the movement now repudiated by Congress, faced a dilemma. If Congress were to take office, the CSP would either have to surrender abjectly to the Congress Right and be party to the repression of the masses or leave Congress in opposition. Leading Congress Socialists had already given their answer: dissolve the CSP and simply embrace Congress. Already Congress was trying to herd independent unions and peasant councils into its organisational vice. The bourgeoisie wanted to make sure there was no repeat of the upsurges of 1937-39 or 1942.

Dissent mounted in the Congress Socialists’ ranks, especially among militants recruited during the August Struggle. Other leftists squirmed: the Revolutionary Socialist Party and Tagore’s RCPI wouldn’t publicly condemn Congress move toward office. This was the BLPI’s first opening. The BLPI called on Left Congress ranks to ‘fight out the Right Wing on the question of acceptance of office’. [109] But it didn’t demand: break with the bourgeoisie.

Where Congress has already accepted office or is supporting ministries, there we must press for immediate release of All political prisoners. In this bitter fight the progressive forces must support the rank and file leftists. We, the Bolshevik-Leninists, pledge full support to these fighters in their fight against capitulation ...

What if these demands were won? The Congress Left would still be a prop to a bourgeois government, itself the flimsy facade to direct imperialist rule. It is not for Trotskyists to consolidate the left wing of a Popular Front. The BLPI should have been vociferous, rock-hard opponents of it on principle, an ‘unpopular’ stand at first, but one that points the way forward.


The BLPI’s weakness on this issue should have been a flashing danger signal for the International. At this point, however, the FI existed mainly as a mailbox of the American SWP, which tried to fill the breach, and overall, did so competently, even heroically, as in the case of its maritime couriers. But the SWP, which lost talented intellectuals in the Shachtman split, didn’t always rise to the political challenges posed during and after the war. In fact, the BLPI had leaders who were at least the equals of their comrades in New York and London. The BLPI’s internationalism was exemplary. Though underground, its leaders contributed ably to the life of the International, such as it existed. On several issues – notably the Proletarian Military Policy and support to China in the war – it was the BLPI that spotted flashing danger signals and intervened.

The editorial board of Permanent Revolution opposed the Proletarian Military Policy adopted by the American SWP and the British RCP, arguing quite cogently:

On this question our co-thinkers in England and America must seriously reconsider their central slogan of military training under trade union control, which in the context of imperialism is a surreptitious attempt to introduce by the back door military defencism and consequently may lead to social-patriotism. [111]

The SWP, which took the PMP too far, ended up quietly dropping it.

In 1943 Philip Gunawardena wrote a razor-sharp polemic against the American SWP, which had taken a dive in its anti-war agitation, sweeping the Leninist slogans, ‘revolutionary defeatism’ and ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’, under the rug out of an overly self-protective desire to preserve legality. [112] Gunawardena (who himself had gone to jail for anti-war propaganda) made all the right arguments. So, when his opportunist appetites weren’t in the way, he could sound very orthodox; i.e., he was a centrist – revolutionary in words, opportunist in deeds.

The BLPI also contributed to the debate over China, namely, whether or not to continue support for China once the US entered the Pacific War. The FI majority, centred on the American SWP, continued to support China, while a minority argued that China’s fight for independence had become subordinate, militarily and politically, to Anglo-American war aims. The Chinese Trotskyist movement split over this issue. Initially, the BLPI provisional leadership endorsed and reprinted the SWP/FI position, although some cadres dissented. [113] However, at the 1944 Conference, a resolution was adopted that stated:

... by reasons of the interlocking of the Sino-Japanese War with the Second Imperialist World War, the subordination of Chungking’s struggle to the reactionary war of the Anglo-American imperialists, and the conversion of the Chungking regime into the channel of Anglo-American economic penetration and political control, the Chungking-led war against Japan has been denuded of its progressive content and cannot therefore be supported by proletarian revolutionaries. [114]

The BLPI’s position on the Red Army’s advance into Eastern Europe reflected a degree of dialectical thinking absent in the knee-jerk orthodoxy upheld by the FI majority as well as the Stalinophobic revisionism that also surfaced. [115] The BLPI was rock solid on the Russian question. [116]

It is a tribute to the BLPI’s cadres that this fragile young party not only survived but in certain areas grew. It kept the banner of Trotskyism aloft in conditions of repression and privations not unlike occupied Europe. It kept its working class, revolutionary course through the ‘quit India’ storm and against senior leaders calling to abandon ship. It recognised the need to begin as a propaganda league, while trying to build a base in the working class. The BLPI seriously attempted to function as a democratic-centralist, Bolshevik organisation, something unprecedented in India, even in the early CPI. Last, but certainly not least, the BLPI took every possible step, some quite risky, to function as a disciplined contingent of Trotsky’s Fourth International, World Party of Socialist Revolution.

Charles Wesley Ervin



48. Letter from Leslie Goonewardene (Colombo), 30 April 1975.

49. Interviews with Sitaram B. Kolpe (Bombay), 15 December 1973, and Mahendra Singh (Varanasi), 2 January 1974. I’ve never located a copy of this pamphlet.

50. Interviews with Karuna Kant Roy (Calcutta), 30 January 1974, and Indra Sen (Calcutta), 16 January 1974.

51. Letter from Leslie Goonewardene (Colombo), 30 April 1975.

52. A Transitional Program for India, Fourth International, October 1942, p.309.

53. Overthrow Imperialism, Inquilah, no.9, March 1942.

54. May Day Manifesto, Inquilah, no.10, May 1942.

55. It was probably this meeting that prompted the SWP to announce: ‘We have just received news from India of the formation of the All-India Bolshevik-Leninist Party.’ See John G Wright. Agrarian Revolution is Key to Struggle in India, Militant, 7 March 1942.

56. From the police file, Home (Pol) File No7/7/47 – Poll (I), cited by B.B. Misra, The Indian Political Parties: an Historical Analysis of Political Behaviour up to 1947, p.621.

57. See E.P. De Silva, A Short Biography of Dr N.M. Perera (Colombo: De Silva 1975), pp.20-21.

58. K. Tilak [Leslie Goonewardene]. The War and Revolutionary Policy, Bolshevik Leninist, August 1942.

59. The Real Fifth Column in India, Harijan, 9 August 1942, p.27.

60. Sections of the BLPI’s draft programme (theses) were reprinted in The Revolution in India (Tait Memorial Pamphlet [Edinburgh], September 1942); The World Revolution and the Tasks of the British Working Class, (London: Workers International League 1945); and Fourth International, March 1942, pp.82-87, April 1942, pp.122-25, and October 1942, pp.309-14.

61. Draft Programme of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, n.d. [1942]. The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford, has what appears to be an original mimeograph.

62. See G.J. Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, pp.185-87. The SWP press ran an interview with an unnamed Ceylonese comrade, undoubtedly Selina Perera. See An Interview with a Comrade, Socialist Appeal, 10 November 1939.

63. Interview with Selina Perera (Calcutta), 10 February 1974.

64. Interview with Stanley Plastrik (New York), 7 December 1974.

65. Masani recounted his encounter with Stanley in his memoirs: M. Masani, Bliss Was it in that Dawn, p140.

66. Interview with Indra Sen (Calcutta), February 1974.

67. International Bulletin [American Committee for the Fourth International], no.1 [1940], p.9.

68. A Foothold in India, Labor Action, 21 October 1940.

69. A Letter from India, Fourth International, November 1942, pp.345-46.

70. India, International Bulletin [SWP], vol.1 no.7 (August 1941), p.16. No name is given in the bulletin, but there’s no doubt it was written by the inimitable Purdy.

71. Labor Action, 2 February 1942, 23 March 1942, 19 October 1942.

72. American Tells of Indian Workers’ Organisations, Militant, 7 March 1942.

73. The Imperialist War and Its Consequences Sharpen the Old and New Contradictions in India, Tanakha, year 1, no.1, [n.d.].

74. Leaflet quoted at length in News from the Bolshevik-Leninist Party, Fourth International, July 1943, p.221.

75. Quoted in Fourth International, July 1943, p.221.

76. See People’s War, 7 March 1943, 4 June 1943 and 12 September 1943.

77. Quoted in Madhu Limaye, Communist Party: Facts and Fiction (Hyderabad: Chetana Prakashan 1951), pp.48-49.

78. For abundant evidence of the CPI’s collaboration see the series by Arun Shourie in Illustrated Weekly of India, 18 March, 25 March, 1 April and 8 April.

79. Gafur Khan, ‘Lessons of the First Phase of the Anti-imperialist Struggle’, Permanent Revolution, January 1943, p7.

80. The Indian Struggle, Permanent Revolution, April-June 1943, p.56.

81. A later BLPI internal document makes reference to an internal document of this period by Gunawardena and Perera which allegedly states that Trotskyism was ‘too advanced’ for Indian workers. See V Chester, The Grave-Diggers of the BLPI, Internal Bulletin [BLPI], vo1.3 no.1, 1 March 1948, p.19.

82. As one political analyst noted, ‘The rank and file of the party, however, were largely against this project of a BLPI.’ See D.S. Weerawardana, Ceylon General Election, 1956 (Colombo: Gunasena, 1960), p61.

83. D.P.R. Gunawardena, Bolshevik-Leninists Should Enter Immediately the Socialist Party of India (CSP), Internal Bulletin, LSSP [Gunawardena/Perera], vol.1 no.2, March 1947, p2. Although a later document, it merely reiterates Gunawardena’s original position.

84. Stanley Plastrik recalled that Trotsky was even reluctant to write the Open Letter for this reason. Interview with Stanley Plastrik (New York City), 7 December 1974.

85. Rup Singh [Philip Gunawardena], Bolshevik Leninist, February 1943. This passage, singled out by Doric de Souza, does not appear in the SWP’s reprint of the article: Rup Singh, The August 1942 Struggle, Fourth International, October 1944, pp.309-14.

86. S. Livera [Doric de Souza], Working Class Leadership of the Peasantry, Permanent Revolution, January-March 1944, pp.6, 7, 9.

87. See Police Raid Trotskyist Centres in Bombay and Madras, Permanent Revolution, July-September 1943, p.27, and The Stalinist-Police Alliance – The Summit of Popular Frontism, Permanent Revolution, January-March 1944, p.21.

88. E.P. De Silva, A Short Biography of Dr N.M. Perera, p23.

89. Interview with Indra Sen (Calcutta), 17 January 1974.

90. Interview with Chandravadan Shukla (Bombay), 12 June 1974. One issue of Inkilah (vol.2 no.11, July 1942) referred to the ‘Bolshevik Mazdoor (Leninist) Party of India’, another (Inkilah, vol.2 no.13, 20 November 1942) used the name, ‘Gujarat Branch of the Bolshevik Mazdoor Party of India’. Inkilah advertised Bolshevik Leninist as the theoretical organ of the BMP.

91. DG [Douglas Garbutt], Report on the Fourth International Movement in India, p.15.

92. Interviews with Chandravadan Shukla (Bombay), 23 December 1973 and 12 June 1974; and with Indra Sen (Calcutta), 17 January 1974. This incident was corroborated by Leslie Goonewardene in a letter dated 30 April 1975.

93. To Our Readers, Permanent Revolution, July-September 1943, p.25.

94. Sampurn swatantrya ke live [For complete independence], BMP leaflet, dated 26 January 1944.

95. Reported in Bombay Free Press, 19 March 1945.

96. See Comrade Mallikarjun Rao, Marxist Outlook [Bombay], (April 1966), pp.22-25.

97. Interview with Murlidhar Parija (Bombay), 14 December 1973.

98. The Mazdoor Trotskyist Party of India. Draft Programme, Issued by the Provisional Committee of the Mazdoor Trotskyist Party of India, Calcutta. 15 May 1942.

99. The Mazdoor Trotskyist Party of India. Draft Programme, appendix.

100. Interview with Sitaram B. Kolpe (Bombay), 19 June 1974. I’ve never seen copies of Kranti.

101. M.G. Purdy, The South African Indian Problem, a Revolutionary Solution, [Bombay: SK Kombrabail], 1943.

102. Interviews with Murlidhar Parija (Bombay), 23 December 1973 and Mahendra Singh (Varanasi), 2 January 1974.

103. See Property Found With Purdy, Times of India, 6 March 1946, Two Years Jail for Purdy, Times of India, 1 March 1946 and Ten Years RI for Purdy, Free Press [Bombay], 18 February 1946.

104. The Present Political Situation and Our Tasks, Permanent Revolution, July-September 1943, p.21.

105. The BLPI’s Fourth Internationalist Library series included: Manifesto of the Fourth International on India (FIL vol.2); Trotsky, Imperialist War and Revolutionary Perspectives (FIL vol.2); Trotsky, Fourth International and the Soviet Union (FIL vol.3); Tilak [Leslie Goonewardene], From the First to the Fourth International (FIL vol.4); and Trotsky, What is an Insurrection? (FIL vol.5).

106. Interview with S. Amarnath (Bombay), 14 June 1974.

107. See India, Fourth International, April 1945, p.126.

108. The Present Political Situation in India. Theses of the Political Committee of Bolshevik Leninist Party of India and Ceylon, adopted 4 August 1944, in Fourth International, October 1944. pp.301-077.

109. Ministry-Makers and ‘Leftist’-Fakers, BLPI pamphlet, dated April 1945, p.7. Reprinted under the name Hemu Kalani, in Fourth International, July 1945, pp199-200.

110. Ministry-Makers and ‘Leftist’-Fakers, p.8.

111. Britain at the Cross Roads, Permanent Revolution, January-March 1944, p.18.

112. Rup Singh [Philip Gunawardena], Revolutionary Defeatism, Permanent Revolution, April-June 1943, p.39-114.

113. American Intervention in China, Permanent Revolution, January 1943, p24-26. For the dissenting view, see V.S. Roy, China in the World War: A Review, Permanent Revolution, April-June 1943, p-46.

114. China in the World War, quoted in Permanent Revolution, October-December 1944.

115. The Red Army in Eastern Europe, reprinted in Fourth International, April 1945, p.127.

116. See For the Revolutionary Defence of the Soviet Union!, Permanent Revolution, April-June 1943, p.54 and The Russian Offensive, Permanent Revolution, January-March 1944, pp.19-20.

Revolutionary History, Vol.1 No.4, Winter 1988-89

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