Lenin and Roy: A Revolution in British India

This is the first of three articles on Lenin’s plans for a revolution in India


In March 1919, leading revolutionaries from around the world, including Russian leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, met in Moscow to found the Communist International, a.k.a. the Comintern. The professed aim of this body was to overthrow all existing governments and replace them with communist regimes – a crucial milestone in the march towards the prophesized global communist utopia. Lenin’s zeal drove the Comintern, and as the head of the Russian government he commanded immense resources. Communist Russia was surrounded by enemies and had barely survived many attempts to destroy the nascent regime. For ideological reasons as well as for survival, the revolution had to be exported.

First Comintern

Lenin and Zinoviev at the Comintern

Lenin believed that a weakened Europe, horrified at the imperial games that led to World War-I, would fall right into the Communists’ lap. Just as Russia did. Once Europe fell, the rest of the world would soon follow. For this, a network of agents run by the Comintern had to instigate and guide peoples’ rebellions across Europe. Unlike the scattered and self-deluded anarchists of old, these trained and capable agents would have the Russian state backing them. However, despite the Comintern’ s best efforts Europe did not oblige. The Polish-Russia war also saw the Poles prevail, much to Lenin’s embarrassment. It was clear that other solutions were required. The British Empire was perceived as the greatest hindrance to the communist utopia – but it would fall if it lost India, the jewel in the Crown. Similarly, the loss of Asiatic colonies will weaken other European enemies. Lenin declared that ‘The East will help us to conquer the West’ and “It is in India that we must strike them hardest”.



However, India was very different from Europe. The required conditions and processes of history (as postulated by communist prophets) might not be applicable there yet. Moreover, none of the Russian leaders had first-hand knowledge of India. Also, they needed a native to lead this revolution. Lenin soon found his champion in Manabendra Nath Roy.

M N Roy as a young man

M N Roy

M.N. Roy, born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, had been a revolutionary since 1905, originally influenced by mysticism and nationalism. From 1915 he traveled the world, relentlessly seeking arms and allies against the British. In 1917 he entered Mexico, a land wracked by many revolutions, and adopted left-wing thought. He founded the Socialist Workers Party in 1917, which became the Mexican Communist Party in 1919. Roy converted to communism under the influence of Mikhail Borodin, a Comintern agent. On Borodin’s recommendation, Roy was invited to the 2nd World Congress (August 1920) by Lenin himself.


Lenin was impressed by Roy. He conveyed his desire to launch a revolution that would eject the Raj and requested required Roy’s assistance for that. During the 2nd Congress the duo formulated strategies. It seemed that orthodox communist approach would have to be abandoned: the Comintern would have to co-operate with non-Marxist movements. Roy argued that such movements are regressive and would just replace white masters with brown ones. Lenin contended that an Indian communist party did not exist. Even if it was created, it would be impossible to reach the masses in time – given India’s unique characteristics. Temporary alliances have to be formed to foment revolution; these alliances would be broken once the Communists captured power. This policy, known as ‘Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions”, settled the debate and became the charter for the revolution.


At this juncture, India did appear to be restive. The Great War and its aftermath, British brutality, and a host of other reasons had enraged Indians. Nationalistic fervor was rising. Muslims were furthered angered by the dismemberment of Ottoman Turkey, through Anglo-French machinations. This meant the effective end of the Islamic Caliphate, invested in the Ottoman Emperor for centuries. In 1914 the Germans and the Ottomans had tried to rouse Muslim rage against Britain but failed. However, it still seemed the most feasible method to destroy the Raj. Moreover, the latest Anglo-Afghan war had just ended – maybe the restive Afghans could be co-opted too.

Zinoviev at the Baku Congress

Zinoviev in Baku

Consequently, in September 1920 in Baku, a grand congress chaired by Zinoviev hosted numerous Muslim delegates from around the globe. Thinkers and rebels of every hue were present. Mixing Islamism and Marxism, Zinoviev called on Muslims worldwide to launch a jihad against imperial powers. The “toilers of the East” were exhorted to overthrow their foreign masters. The delegates responded with great enthusiasm. The dangers of this path were however recognized by the communist leadership: millions of Muslims residing in Russian lands could also get caught in this storm. It was soon made very clear that the “liberation” was meant only for Muslims in other lands. A few days later, the Communist Party of India was launched in Tashkent. Roy was also made head of the Central Asiatic Bureau of the Comintern and the Indian Military School. The endeavor had begun.

(To be continued)


PS:  This is my article in DNA, published on March 11, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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