Indian Trotskyist Mohammad Rasheed (1925-2017)

By Charles Wesley Ervin

April 26, 2017

M. Rasheed, a long-time partisan of Trotskyist politics in India, died on January 6, 2017 at the age of 92. He was one of the veterans of the “first generation” of Indian Trotskyists. The son of a prominent freedom fighter in what was then the Malabar district of British India (now Kerala State), he plunged into the Congress campaign for independence while he was still a schoolboy. He was arrested and jailed at age 17 for participating in the Quit India movement. He witnessed the perfidious role of the Communist Party of India (CPI), which opposed the struggle and supported the British war effort.

From that experience he found his way to Trotskyism. But the timing was inauspicious. In 1948 the Indian Trotskyist party folded their tent and entered the Socialist party. Rasheed joined the next best thing –the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). When the Trotskyist regrouped in 1965, he joined the new party and became its general secretary. He left ten years later when the party took an ambiguous position on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule.

He continued as an independent Trotskyist activist until age and health forced him to retire. Rasheed was born in Maranchery, a village in the region of Kerala populated by the Mappila Muslim community. His father, E. Moidu Moulavi (1886-1995), was the son of a distinguished scholar and political activist. Moidu was educated in Muslim schools, but became an advocate of secular education for both boys and girls. He could read and write prolifically in six languages. Moidu joined the freedom struggle in 1919 and participated in the militant Khilafat Movement of 1921. He recruited Mohammed Abdurahiman Sahib (1898-1945), a legendary leader from Malabar, and together they founded the Congress Party in Kerala. They launched a daily newspaper, Al-Ameen [One who is honest], which promoted the nationalist cause. The Al-Ameen Lodge in Calicut, where Moidu lived while away from home, became the headquarters of the party. He brought Rasheed to Calicut and enrolled him in the Ganapathi Boys School.

At the Al-Ameen Lodge Raheem was exposed to the political discussions of the Congress cadres. Much to his father’s dismay, Raheem was spending more time on  olitics than his schoolwork. He volunteered to be a courier, since the local police did not yet know who he was. He was given bundles of contraband Congress literature to deliver around the town. When the Quit India revolt erupted in 1942, Rasheed joined the protest demonstrations. He was arrested and jailed for 3 months. At that point the CPI as on the other side of the barricades, collaborating with the British government in the war effort. Rasheed looked to the Congress Socialists for political direction. Many of the militant Socialists were sympathetic to Trotsky and used his arguments as ammunition against the CPI. Rasheed read everything he could find about Trotskyism.

He learned that a Trotskyist party, the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI), had been formed only a few months earlier. The BLPI was actively participating in the Quit India struggle and opposed the war. Rasheed was an avid letter writer and he soon established contact with BLPI members in Bombay and Calcutta. But that ended in 1948 when the BLPI majority decided to join the Socialist Party with the long-term goal of building a Trotskyist faction. Rasheed, who knew the Socialists up close, considered that a naive mistake. 

In 1949 Rasheed was invited to attend a national conference of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). The RSP had adopted a program that sounded a lot like Trotskyism. During the Quit India struggle, and again in the militant protests that erupted after the war, the RSP and BLPI were in a de facto united front. Rasheed formed the first RSP branch in Kerala and was founding editor of its newspaper, Sakhavu (Comrade). His father disapproved of his denunciations of the “bourgeois” Nehru government. He thought that if Rasheed got married, he’d become more realistic. His mother wanted him to marry into a well-off Mappila landowning family. But Rasheed decided to marry a schoolteacher, Beepathu, from Veliyancode. His parents were so hurt that they refused to attend the wedding. So instead of bringing his bride to live in his family’s home, he moved in with her parents. The father-son rift was never fully healed.

Soon thereafter, the Nehru government announced that the first general election in independent India would be held in 1951-52. The RSP, like the rest of the left, threw itself into electioneering, confident that the Nehru government was vulnerable and could be toppled. Electoral campaigns were not Rasheed’s cup of tea. He wanted to get into trade-union work and learn more about Trotskyism. He started making the long railway trips up to Bombay to work with the Trotskyists, Sitaram Kolpe (1919-2002) and George Gomez (1926-2016), who were leaders of a dockworkers union. He had no livelihood, but the union office provided food and shelter. Bombay soon became his “home away from home.”

The Congress romped to a landslide victory in the election. Stunned, the RSP blamed the defeat on left disunity and issued a call for all “non-Stalinist, non-reformist Parties” to unite. More than a dozen left parties, including the Trotskyist splinter groups, endorsed the proposal. At the inaugural conference the participating parties voted to establish a committee that would craft a program that would satisfy everyone. Rasheed knew that was impossible, but he saw this as an opportunity to raise the Trotskyist program. The discussions went on for years with no resolution. Finally, as the next general election approached, the RSP withdrew. The Left Unity initiative fizzled. Rasheed and his comrades had wasted four years. In 1957 the scattered groups of Trotskyists in India merged to form the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP). The RWP regarded Rasheed and his comrades in the RSP as a sympathizing group. But that relationship was aborted when the RWP decided two years later to merge with the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, a rival of the RSP. But that was another bad choice. The merged group blew apart two years later over principled differences on the India-China border war.

After protracted soul searching, a majority of the Trotskyists decided to abandon Left Unity merger schemes and re-establish a “pure” Trotskyist party. In 1965 they launched the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The party appealed to dissidents in the RSP to join the SWP. A small group left and set up a Kerala unit of the SWP in October 1965. A local paper reported, “M. Rasheed, who is one of the founder-members of the RSP in Kerala, is believed to be with the new party.” (Pradeepan Daily, 25 October 1965). He may have been with the SWP in principle, but he wasn’t ready to make a break with the RSP.

Prior to the Fourth General election in 1967, the Communist Party (Marxist) formed “United Left Fronts” in Bengal and Kerala for the purpose of defeating Congress. The RSP leadership characterized the ULFs as “basically nothing but bourgeois-democratic electoral coalitions” (The Call, November 1966). But they joined anyway. Rasheed denounced the RSP leaders for popular frontism and left the party with about ten other oppositionists in 1967. They joined the SWP branch. At last he was part of an openly Trotskyist party. Rasheed organized a party youth group, the Young Communists (Trotskyists), and started the first Trotskyist newspaper in Malayalam, Chengathir (Red Stalk). At the party’s third national conference he was elected General Secretary. That stint lasted nearly ten years.

In 1975 Indira Gandhi imposed a dictatorial “state of emergency.” The Indian party debated how to respond. Rasheed felt that the party line was too ambivalent and he quit along with several other veteran cadres, including his old Bombay comrades in the dockworkers union.

Rasheed remained very active in Kerala politics as an independent Trotskyist. He also worked to resuscitate the not-for-profit company, Al-Ameen Ltd., which had been formed in 1948 to publish the political works of his old Congress mentor, Mohammed Abdurahiman Sahib. Rasheed revived the Al-Ameen Lodge as a cultural-political hub and printed radical literature on the press that once produced Gandhian tracts.He continued to correspond with comrades around India. He always carried an arsenal of pens, post cards, inland covers, and stamps in his shoulder bag. The Malayalam daily Madhyamam gave him a regular column, called Vayanikidayil (Between Reading). He encouraged his readers to write to him and he always replied.He also wrote a book on Muslim leaders of the Indian freedom struggle (Swathantrya Samarathile Muslim Nayakar, 1990).

He remained an atheist and anti-communalist. His grandson recounts an incident in 1998 when a friend gave Rasheed a spiritual book. Rasheed impishly replied that Marx and Trotsky were enough to fill any spiritual void he might have. He took a strong public stand against Hindu-chauvinist Hindutva politics and Muslimophobia.

As the years wore on, his wife developed health problems and wanted to move back to Veliyancode, where she had friends and family and life was gentler. That started a new chapter for Rasheed. He had fewer outlets for leftist political work, but he continued to write. Rasheed made more frequent trips to Salem, a town in Tamil Nadu State, where his daughter and grandson lived. As his grandson wrote, “He would roam around Salem, make friends on his own and had his own little social life which ranged from an ageing Dalit leader of the Communist Party of India to a Gujarati photographer.”

The last phase of his life was painful. His wife started to show symptoms of dementia. They moved to Salem in 2014 to live with his daughter. His wife died two years later. Rasheed was crushed. He died after a heart attack in his daughter’s home. On his desk were the two photos he treasured – his father and Leon Trotsky.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I thank Rasheed’s grandson, Bobby Kundu, for providing details about Rasheed’s family background and personal life. His moving tribute to his grandfather can be accessed online: “Remembering M. Rasheed: A grandchild’s political farewell,” post on the group blog KAFILA.org, April 11, 2017.