Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Anil Nauriya - Non-violent Action and Socialist Radicalism: Narendra Deva in India’s freedom movement

NB: This is an important contribution to the historiography of Indian nationalism, and of socialist theorising in India. The paper is available online here; and in hard copy at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Non-violent Action and Socialist Radicalism: 
Narendra Deva in India’s freedom movement

by Anil Nauriya

1. Introduction
The dynamic that linked non-violent movements for Indian freedom in the first half of the twentieth century with socialist participation in these movements along with socialist initiatives in peasant and workers’ movements is reflected in the understanding that socialists led by Acharya Narendra Deva (1889–1956) developed especially on prevailing national and international class relations, particularly those between the imperial regime and dominant landed interests. While not wishing to confine themselves within a theoretical frame of truth and nonviolence, Socialists theorized their participation in the non-violent movements. As the pre-eminent theoretician of the Congress Socialist Party established in 1934, Narendra Deva’s understanding is of significance in providing an alternative Marxist and radical understanding of the Indian movement for freedom.  

In writings on possible areas of agreement between Marxism and the Gandhi-led movements, Narendra Deva addressed matters concerning possibilities of convergence of the two strands of thought and method. This discussion traversed a fascinating range of issues, including matters concerning the ideological or organizational “ownership” of Marxism itself, ultimately confirming socialist participation in the Gandhi-led movements including the constructive programme of the Congress in the pre-independence period. Born in the same year as Jawaharlal Nehru, Narendra Deva was to become a scholar of ancient India and of Buddhism, a lawyer and, after the Bolshevik Revolution, a keen student of Karl Marx and Lenin. He presided over the founding convention of the Congress Socialist Party held in Patna in May 1934. The early Indian socialists, like Narendra Deva, did not range themselves against the erstwhile Soviet Union or Marxism. The Congress Socialist Party came into being within the Congress as a Marxist party. Julius Braunthal notes, quite perceptively, that “(i)n its origins … the Congress Socialist Party was not simply a Marxist party in the tradition of the European Social Democratic parties, but rather a party of the Bolshevik version of Marxism”.

Narendra Deva stands at the head of the particular Indian Marxist tradition which was not part of the communist movement, associated itself organically with the national struggle, and also remained for a long time open to possibilities of co-operation with other Left groups, including the communists. Narendra Deva remained a Marxist throughout his life. Even as late as 1950 the Socialist Party was seen as a Marxist group having, in the words of Braunthal, “evolved from the Bolshevik version of Marxism to a Marxist version of humanitarian democratic socialism”.

In May 1952 at the Pachmarhi Convention of the Socialist Party, when Narendra Deva was away in China, Dr. Rammanohar Lohia, who was voted to the chair, took the opportunity to expound his doctrine, widely seen as marking the party’s departure from Marxism. In the ideological ferment and the political developments that followed, Narendra Deva shared his thoughts on 3 September 1952 in a letter to Asoka Mehta, his party colleague, making it clear that he would rather give up the party than abandon Marxism.

The position adopted by Narendra Deva, who was to live only for another three-and-a-half years, was in contrast to that of other leading figures, like Jayaprakash Narayan, who had by this time already turned their back on Marxism. Narendra Deva’s place in the history of Marxist socialism in India may be gauged from the remarks made by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, at a function held at Teen Murti in New Delhi on 19 February 1989 to observe Narendra Deva’s 33rd death anniversary. At this function, held around the time also of Narendra Deva’s birth centenary year 1989–1990, Namboodiripad recalled that it was with Narendra Deva’s speech at the Foundation Conference of the Congress Socialists held at Patna in May 1934 that he had first been exposed to Marxist socialism.

 Later he read Jayaprakash Narayan’s “Why Socialism?”, published in 1936.6 Another speech by Narendra Deva that influenced Namboodiripad was the one Narendra Deva made while seconding the Congress election manifesto at the All India Congress Committee in 1936.7 2. In the Freedom Movement Brought up in an atmosphere suffused with patriotic feeling, Narendra Deva made an early translation into Hindi of Aurobindo Ghose’s Bengali language articles on nationalism. He was drawn simultaneously to the Indian National Congress and the Home Rule League; of the latter Narendra Deva established in 1916 a branch in Faizabad district, United Provinces, where he was practicing as a lawyer, and became its secretary.


Three years later he was a delegate at the Congress session held in Amritsar in the wake of the political crisis of 1919 and the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. After the Nagpur session of the Congress in 1920, Narendra Deva suspended his legal practice and joined the nonco-operation movement.11 No pre-independence Congress movement thereafter was without some significant contribution or participation by him...

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