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The Indian and British Workers’ Candidate

In 1929, Yorkshire radicals engaged in an unprecedented act of international solidarity when they selected Shaukat Usmani — a jailed Indian revolutionary — to run as a Communist candidate for the mill area of Spen Valley.

A muhajir who left India after World War I hoping to restore the Ottoman Caliph, a fighter in the Russian Civil War, a pioneering Indian communist, a member of the Presidium of the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, a frequent resident of the British Raj’s jails; Shaukat Usmani (1901-1978) was many things.

But one of the most striking episodes of Usmani’s colourful life is his brief period as a parliamentary candidate, while in an Indian jail, for the British constituency of Spen Valley. The candidacy, for the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), was intended as a mostly symbolic gesture rather than a genuine bid for power, and his vote numbers reflect as much. Yet it also stands out as a striking attempt to bridge the divides of race and nationality to build meaningful internationalist solidarity.

Sojourns Abroad

As a young boy in the Bikaner district of Rajasthan, Usmani learned to hate the British colonisers with a passion, growing up with stories from his grandmother about the atrocities carried out by the British in the aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny. ‘By the time I was ten years old’, he recalled in his memoir, Historic Trips of a Revolutionary: Sojourn in the Soviet Union, his grandmother had ‘inculcated in me a deep aversion to the ferangi [the British rulers]’.

These sentiments were shared by many of his peers; as children, he recalled, they fantasized about ‘blowing up fortresses’, and vandalized the faces of British figures in their schoolbooks. When the first Non-Cooperation Movement and the Khilafat Movement began after World War I, Usmani had the opportunity to take part in nationalist politics in earnest. As the Turkish War of Independence erupted in 1919, he was one of many young Muslim men who sought to emigrate from India to fight against British forces.

As the Turkish struggle rattled on, Usmani spent time travelling through Afghanistan, waiting for the newly independent government there to give the muhajirs tangible aid. When this was not forthcoming, Usmani and some of his comrades considered turning to the USSR instead. They had heard a little of what was happening in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution — mostly through the hysterical anti-communist propaganda which enveloped all press coverage regarding the infant workers’ republic. Amongst the colonised, however, scaremongering could have the opposite effect: as Usmani put it, ‘we liked what the British hated.’

Around this time, in September 1920, the Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in Baku, Azerbaijan with more than 2000 delegates representing 30 different ‘peoples’. The Congress was not without its problems: some delegates were summoned to a ‘holy war’, while Nariman Narimanov, chairman of the Azerbaijani Revolutionary Committee, spoke in Orientalist tones of the ‘grey-headed East’, and many of the gathered representatives were politically very far from communism’s stated aims.

Yet the Congress had a lasting and significant symbolic power for millions of people. Here, for the first time, were representatives of both East and West, meeting as equals and comrades in struggle. As the Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev put it, those at the Congress were tasked to:

‘slam shut this book of the accursed past, so that it may never return, and must open a new page of history…May the declaration made today be heard in London, in Paris, and in all the cities where the capitalists are still in power. May they heed this solemn oath sworn by the representatives of tens of millions of toilers of the East, that the rule of the British oppressors shall be no more in the East, that the oppression of the toilers of the East by the capitalists shall cease!’

Thus began the Communist International’s long involvement with revolutionary movements in the colonised world. Over the coming years, figures like Ho Chi Minh, the Indonesian Marxist Tan Malaka, M.N. Roy, and Usmani would be drawn into Moscow’s orbit as the centre of the world revolution, ready to play arterial roles to bring this upheaval about. In the tumult that engulfed the world after the Great War, the Comintern offered a platform for radicals around the world to meet, debate, and define the struggle to construct an alternative present.

The reception Usmani and his comrades got once in Soviet territory took them aback- they were greeted with cheers of ‘Long Live the Indian Revolution’ and military bands playing the Internationale. In Usmani’s first encounter with a Soviet official, he was taken aback at the transgression of racial hierarchy:

‘The Consul-General and his staff greeted us as comrades…Many of us, rather a great majority, were bewildered to find white people addressing us as comrades. But it did not take us long to understand one another. There was something deeper that united us with them. It was revolutionary comradeship.’

These impressions of equality between Asians and Europeans stayed with him for the rest of his life. When he began to learn more about the fledgling Soviet state’s attempts to construct socialism, Usmani’s politics underwent a radical transformation. So began, almost by accident, his long involvement in the Indian — and world — communist movement.

After taking part in fighting in Kerki, Turkmenistan, Usmani made his way towards Moscow. While there, he got in touch with other prominent Indian leftists like M.N. Roy, M.P.T. Acharya, Virendranath Chattopadhyay and others. He was enrolled in the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), where he was schooled in world history, Marxist theory, and historical materialism. In his memoir, he recalled with nostalgia the warmth between Chinese and Indian students, as well as life in Moscow.

But amidst this heavy theoretical and practical education, the impatience and fervor of youth had not left him, and he urgently desired to return to India to put theory into practice. He left Russia in September 1921, and after travelling for months arrived in Bombay in January 1922 in disguise.

Return to India

Soon, Usmani was put to work contacting the nascent communist movement in India — figures like Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, for example — and began publishing accounts of what he had seen and experienced in the USSR. In 1924, he was arrested alongside Ahmad and others in the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case. In this early case of persecution against Indian communists, they were accused of conspiring to overthrow the British Raj through a violent revolution; both were sentenced to four years in prison.

The intent of the Conspiracy Case was undoubtedly to stifle communism in India before it had time to grow, but it likely had the reverse effect, allowing for the first eruption of communism into the Indian political mainstream. In 1925 — in Kanpur itself — the First Indian Communist Conference was held, an event which founded the Communist Party of India (CPI). Malayapuram Singaravelu, a Madrasi anti-caste radical and trade unionist, gave the presidential address. He ended his speech in stirring terms:

Comrades, what we communists should aim in India is a simple life for all, a life free from anxiety for the daily bread, a life free from premature death and decay, a life free from ignorance. We communists should believe that by the gradual and peaceful application of the principles of communism, that a better life can be brought about in India. The future of India is in our hands. A better India lies in our dreams. Let us therefore try to realise the dream of a free India, free from the exploitations of weak over the strong, free from drudgery which killeth our life, free from starvation, disease and death, free to express our thoughts without let or hindrance, free to enjoy the highest product of art, science and culture, and free to sing the song of labour that though

Now beneath the rule of robbers the world grows sad and old,

The people bound and fettered in chains of glittering gold

Yet when the trumpet soundeth, the world shall see a sight

The golden chain is broken on the coming of the light

Oh! The coming of the light, oh the coming of the light,

The golden chain is broken on the coming of the light.

With its grinding poverty, widespread discontent and a mass anti-colonial movement, the subcontinent was fertile ground for socialism to take root. It is a testament to the failure of the colonial state’s endeavour to suppress this growth that they felt compelled to launch the much more comprehensive Meerut case in 1929.

Hands Across the Sea

After being released from prison in 1927, Usmani threw himself into labour organising in Punjab. He was a delegate to the All-India Trade Union Congress, helped publish research on working conditions in Asia, and organized front organisations for the CPI called Workers and Peasants Parties (WPP). So, at Meerut, Shaukat Usmani found himself accused of conspiring with the Comintern to ‘levy war against the King’, alongside more than 30 other trade unionists, student leaders, intellectuals and activists.

What made this case unique, however, was the presence of three white British leftists in the dock alongside their Indian comrades. Ben Bradley and Philip Spratt were CPGB members who had come to India to assist the organisation of workers into unions, while Lester Hutchinson was a British radical from a Communist family who had come to Bombay as a journalist but threw his lot in with the movement. The presence of white and Indian leftists in the courtroom, in what became the longest and most expensive trial in colonial history, had a great symbolic power. As the CPGB stalwart Robin Page Arnot wrote in Labour Monthly:

The Meerut prisoners, Englishmen and Indians in the dock together, destroyed once and for all the jingo picture of ‘black men’ versus ‘white men,’ of ‘Asiatics against Europeans’ and showed the true line of cleavage in a fight of the oppressed of both nations against the oppressors. To obtain their release, therefore, must be the object of both British and Indian workers. But it is the British Governments — Tory, Labour and National — that have kept them in prison. It is the British Government which is responsible for the sentence. The biggest responsibility lies with the British working class to secure their release, by nation-wide agitation in every organisation, in every kind of meeting.

The presence of British comrades may have caused some of the uproar in Britain and abroad against the Meerut Trial, but Arnot was clear that the stakes were much bigger. His delineation of the common struggle of workers in both colony and metropole was part of a vital tradition in the British Left which sought to inculcate an internationalist consciousness and practice across borders.

Running for Office

This is the spirit and context which soon found Usmani as the Communist candidate representing a working-class English parliamentary constituency. While imprisoned in Meerut, Usmani received a telegram from the CPGB asking if he would accept their nomination. He was under no illusions and realised that the purpose of the campaign would be to publicize the Meerut Case to the British public, not to win. After discussing it with his fellow prisoners, he agreed to run. The election pamphlet situated the Meerut Case in a wider project to stifle the rapid growth of the working-class movement in India.

Voters were left under no illusions that this was not a mere Indian concern, and that the assault on workers in India would have immediate impacts at home. The employers’ growing offensive against wages, hours and conditions were interrelated between England and India, and the consequences of defeat for the workers in one struggle would reverberate widely. The Empire’s profits helped sustain the ruling class at home, the suppression of wages in the colony would lead to a race to the bottom, and reaction rarely stopped at one borders. ‘So long as India remains under British rule, the workers of Britain can never be free’ was the appeal of the CPGB, Usmani and the ‘Indian workers and peasants’ to the voters of Spen Valley.

In August 1929, in the pages of Labour Monthly, Usmani wrote a direct appeal to voters. The difficulties of transmitting his writing from his cell to Britain meant that only a few copies arrived before the election, but An Echo of the General Election remains a fascinating document. The register in which Usmani speaks to the voters of Britain is striking, and thus deserves quoting at length: ‘I wish, though separated from you by 6,000 miles and prison bars, to place before you an appeal,’ he wrote. ‘I appeal to you, not on my own behalf but of the 300 million toiling masses of India.’

Urging voters to reject the liberal imperialism represented by John Simon, the Spen Valley MP who headed the massively opposed 1928 all-white constitutional commission to India, Usmani embodied an alternative: ‘I claim to be a humble representative of the vast mass forces of revolt which are now so quickly gaining strength in India and throughout the entire colonial world.’

Usmani made the case for British voters to follow a combination of fraternal solidarity and self-interest. On the former front: ‘I am asking you disregard personal consideration, the claim of traditions and the ties of race and colour, and to prefer the weak to the strong, the poor to the rich, the absent to the present. I ask you to make this sacrifice not for my sake, but for the sake of the solidarity of the workers of the world.’

He also reminded his readers that their fight was essentially the same — ‘the same clique of exploiters which so hideously oppresses the masses of India also rules and exploits you.’ Solidarity, therefore, was rational as much as it was moral — ‘in standing by the workers of India you will be fighting for the best interests of your own class.’ He signed off with the rousing call, ‘Long live the Revolutionary solidarity of the Masses of the East and West!’

In the end, Usmani received 242 votes compared to John Simon’s 22,039. But, again, the idea had never been to win the election. The election was meant to be a propaganda platform, an attempt to make tangible the interconnections between British and Indian emancipation. Eventually, the Comintern’s sectarianism, and the intense strain of the lengthy Meerut proceedings took a toll on the Indian communists; personal jealousies and political disputes began to fester.

Usmani was expelled from the CPI in 1932, but as his prolific writing output in the years to come showed, he remained dedicated to the same passions which had moved him in the heady days of the interwar period. ‘Sweet memories of that period still haunt me, give me hope sometimes and at others depress me because,’ he lamented, ‘we are still far away from the goal which we cherish.’ To the end of his days, he continued to cherish the dream of substantive liberation.

In our own present, when the need for internationalism is so visceral and clear, we must turn to stories like Usmani’s for inspiration. There is no sense in re-enacting the past or lamenting missed opportunities — we occupy a different conjuncture, with its own challenges, even if we do share the same cherished goal of socialism. Yet, history can be a valuable starting point for a critical re-evaluation of our present and can spark fresh thinking about alternate futures.

Source: P.C. Joshi Archive of Contemporary History, Jawaharlal Nehru University