History Remembered

100 years on: How the Russian Revolution inspired India

The values that inspired the movement remain relevant.

A hundred years ago, American journalist John Reed witnessed the momentous events of 1917 in Russia, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, backed by soldiers and working-class people, seized power to end centuries of czarist rule in Russia. Reed describes the scene in Moscow’s Red Square in his book Ten Days That Shook The World:

“This was the day of the People, the rumour of whose coming was thunderous as surf…

“We forced our way through the dense mass packed near the Kremlin wall, and stood upon one of the dirt-mountains. Already several men were there, among them Muranov, the soldier, who was elected Commandant of Moscow – a tall, simple-looking, beared man with a gentle face.

“… A military band came up marching up, playing the Internationale, and spontaneously the song caught and spread like wind-ripples on a sea, slow and solemn. From top of the Kremlin’s wall a gigantic banner unrolled… saying Long Live Brotherhood of Workers of the World.”

News of the Russian Revolution spread through the world and it touched the lives of the poorest people. They saw the possibility of political justice and economic prosperity, and it strengthened their resolve to continue their own struggles.

As Jawaharlal Nehru noted later: “The Soviet Revolution has advanced human society by a great leap and has lit a bright flame which could not be smothered, and it has laid the foundation for that new civilisation towards which the world could advance.”

Adivasi and workers’ movements in India

It didn’t take long for the Russian Revolution to inspire Indian workers to fight against their horrific working conditions. It led to an upsurge in workers’ movements in 1918 and 1919. There were strikes in almost all the textile mills in Bombay, the heart of Indian industry at that time. In the first six months of 1921, over 1.5 million workers were involved in a series of strikes against the 1919 Rowlatt Act, which allowed indefinite detention and incarceration without trial.

Dozens of small trade unions sprang up across India. On October 20, 1920, three years after the Russian Revolution, the All-India Trade Union Congress was born.

In 1945, in a village in Thane deep in the forests of the Western Ghats, a small group of Adivasis of the Warli community gathered around Godavari Parulekar, a communist who was working with them, to pose a question that had been troubling them for some time. They lit their bidis and finally asked in a confidential tone, “Tell us frankly the truth, Bai, who is Russia? Does he give you money?”

The Adivasis told Parulekar that their landlords had told them that the “red flag isn’t ours, it is Russia’s. The Bai gets money from Russia.”

So, Parulekar told them about Russia, about how peasants and workers like themselves had formed a government and an army. She went on to lead the Adivasi community in their own struggle against the wealthy landlords who had pushed them into forced labour.

A manifesto for Kashmir

Also in the 1940s, in a small village of 150 families called Hafroo in the Kashmir Valley, a young man from a poor family walked 25 km to Srinagar to reach his college. Ghulam Qader could not afford to take the tonga. In Srinagar, he came across a magazine called Soviet Desh.

He was so excited to read the magazine that he immediately subscribed to it. To his delight, the subscription was free.

Qader attended a study circle run by communists, where he heard of MN Roy, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India who had known Lenin. Qader later became a teacher and immersed himself in the activities of the trade union for teachers. He was also an active member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and remained one even when he was close to 80 years old.

There were others like him in Kashmir who were inspired by the Russian Revolution. Sheikh Abdullah, called the lion of Kashmir, was so moved by it that he asked Indian communists to write a manifesto for a Naya Kashmir. The manifesto had separate charters on the rights of peasants, workers and women.

In the introduction to the 1944 Naya Kashmir programme, Abdullah, who would go on to be chief minister of the state, said: “Soviet Russia has demonstrated before our eyes not merely theoretically but in her actual day to day life and development, that real freedom takes birth from economic emancipation.”

In 1948, he renamed Srinagar Chowk as Lal Chowk after Moscow’s Red Square.

Russia and Raj Kapoor

It was not a one-sided love. The Russian people loved Indians, India and Hindi films. A record 63.7 million Soviet citizens watched Raj Kapoor’s 1951 hit Awara – it was the largest audience of the decade for a single film.

The script of the film was written by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (1914-1987). He was born in Panipat in the home of celebrated Urdu poet Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali, a student of Mirza Ghalib. His grandfather, Khwaja Gulam Abbas, was among the main players of the 1857 Rebellion – an unsuccessful civilian uprising against British rule that began with a mutiny by Indian soldiers in Meerut – and the first rebel from Panipat to be shot from the mouth of a cannon.

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas had been active in the Indian People Theatre Association, the cultural front of the Communist Party of India that had more than 12,000 members.

Still relevant after a century

On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag with its hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin and the Russian tri-colour was raised.

And now it is a hundred years since the Russian Revolution took place. It is a hundred years since the workers and peasants sang the Internationale. The Soviet Union has disappeared from the map but the song is still sung by millions of workers in their own languages.

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In Russia, the government is not sure how it should commemorate 100 years of the revolution. Many of the older generation remember their country and despite the terrible tragedies they witnessed and the losses they suffered, they still love the idea of the Soviet Union. They see with horror the death of old values and they ask, “What kind of values can the Pepsi generation have?”

One member of the Soviet Communist Party declared:

“Socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright world: everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others. They say to me that you couldn’t buy a car – so then no one had a car. No one wore Versace suits or bought houses in Miami. My God! The leaders of the USSR lived like mid-level businessmen, they were nothing like today’s oligarchs. Not a bit! They weren’t building themselves yatchs with champagne showers. Can you imagine! Right now, there is a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for? Gilded doorknobs… Is this freedom?”

The ideas and values that inspired the Russian Revolution are even more relevant if we look at the world today. The century since the revolution has seen more wars, violence and inequality. It has seen the deliberate crushing of dreams and visions for alternative politics.

It may be easier to understand the dimensions of injustice and inequality today with the help of some statistics. If we could reduce the world’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would look something like this:

  • The village would have 61 Asians, 13 Africans, 12 Europeans, nine Latin Americans, and five from the United States and Canada.
  • 50 would be male, 50 would be female.
  • 75 would be non-white, 25 white.
  • 80 would live in substandard housing.
  • 16 would be unable to read or write.
  • 50 would be malnourished and one would be dying of starvation.
  • 33 would be without access to safe water supply.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation.
  • 24 would not have any electricity (and of the 76 that do have electricity, most would only use it for light at night).
  • Eight people would have access to the internet.
  • One would have a college education.
  • One would have HIV.
  • Two would be near birth, one near death.
  • Five would control 32% of the world’s wealth, and all five would be citizens of the United States.
  • 48 would live on less than $2 a day.
  • 20 would live on less than $1 a day.

If we look at these statistics, we know why so many millions of people around the world still sing the Interntionale and celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer

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