The Peace Movement in India: An Important Legacy

By Archishman Raju.

The Peace Movement and Colonial Rule

One of the early conferences of the world peace movement was held in New York in 1949, a Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace. The atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to a horrific end of the second world war–as well as the emerging cold war tensions between the Soviet Union and United States–made a wide range of artists and scientists flock to such conferences in defense of culture and for the building of peace. In attendance in New York were Russian composer Dmitri Shastakovich, pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois and scientist J.D. Bernal. The conference had a single Asian delegate: D. D. Kosambi from India.

Kosambi’s speech at the conference stands out for he said that the terms of the discussion in a conference on world peace were excessively European and they ignored the large part of the world that Asia represented. He insisted that “while talking about peace at this luxurious American conference, you are already engaged in waging war on a considerable part of the world’s population and waging war against democracy”, bringing up the ongoing struggle against colonialism in Vietnam (against the French) and Indonesia (against the Dutch). Kosambi said that a conference on peace cannot be complete unless it talks about hunger and poverty, that he had seen food, or rather the lack of food, employed as an effective weapon to kill millions of people. He was referring to the Great Bengal Famine in which Winston Churchill’s deliberate policies had led to the death of at least 3 million Indians (though almost certainly the figure is higher). Hence, Kosambi pointed to imperialism and its economic component as one of the greatest threats to world peace, and implied that those who knew nothing of hunger could not fight for peace.

Another delegate at the conference, W.E.B Du Bois was well aware of this link. As early as 1915, he had written the article ‘The African Roots of War’ referring to the first world war as a fight for the division of Africa among the European powers. He had given a fierce indictment of the peace movement in Europe at the time, saying “Hitherto the peace movement has confined itself chiefly to figures about the cost of war and platitudes on humanity…How can love of humanity appeal as a motive to nations whose love of luxury is built on the inhuman exploitation of human beings…?”

Hence, the countries and peoples who had suffered under European colonialism, which constituted that basic majority of mankind which was yellow, brown and black, saw the peace movement as a natural continuation of their fight against centuries of exploitation. Their participation changed the very form of the peace movement in the 20th century tying it deeply to solidarity between Asia and Africa. In this, they received support from the Soviet Union, which, in 1920, had decided to defend and support all national revolutionary movements around the world.

The Indian Peace Movement

The Indian peace movement, of which Kosambi was a part, is important because it came as a natural continuation of the struggle that India waged against British rule: a long and protracted struggle described once, quite rightfully, as an epic which awaits its lyre. The peace movement offered unwavering support to the many struggles for peace, and against imperialism around the world including in Vietnam, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cuba.  Unfortunately, this new form of the peace movement was attacked by imperialist powers, the United States in particular, as being a “communist conspiracy”. It was this that led W.E.B Du Bois to say, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called communists”. The peace movement in India was indeed led by the Communist Party of India, initially by leaders like Romesh Chandra and Litto Ghosh. It was not, however, tied to any single party within India. To the contrary, it was a much broader movement and always concerned with solidarity between oppressed countries and people.


The peace movement in India was organized under the All India Peace Council. This council included some of the most prominent personalities of the time, including actors, scientists and writers. They organized All India Peace Conventions starting in 1950, discussing regional cooperation, the danger of American imperialism and the challenges that a developing country faced.

Their presence and participation is impossible to understand without recognizing the influence of the foremost leader of the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, who had coined the term non-violence: an English translation of the philosophical term ahimsa. Gandhi believed that non-violence as a concept could be extended to the relations between states and states, and hoped that India would lead and provide moral direction to a world plagued by war. Even those who disagreed with him on matters of tactics during the freedom struggle, were deeply influenced by his message and philosophy.

The first expression of the peace movement could, in fact, be seen in the Inter-Asian Relations conference organized in New Delhi in 1947. Both Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru spoke at this conference. Nehru said “As we meet here today, the long past of Asia rises before us, the troubles of recent years fade away, and a thousand memories revive.” His speech at the conference gave shape to the hope that a long suppressed Asia would rise up in cooperation, and its dynamism would lead the world forward.

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Of these many influences on the peace movement, some glimpses into the lives of three important personalities, D. D. Kosambi, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Rameshwari Nehru, illuminate the nature of the movement in India and the diverse traditions it drew from. All three had been involved in the freedom struggle, but in quite different ways. They dealt with the challenge of fighting for world peace in a country that has been ravaged by imperialism, and had a social order in need of reform. Thus, the vision of peace that they searched for and put forward was not simply the absence of war, but the presence of justice in a long-suffering continent which was coming to its own. Kosambi was an atheist, Kitchlew was a Muslim and Nehru was a Hindu and their coming together in the peace movement was allegorical of the possibilities of freedom in India.

The many-sided Indian Freedom Struggle

The oldest of the three, Rameshwari Nehru was born in Lahore, Punjab (now in Pakistan) in 1886. Two years later in 1888, a mere 50 km away, Saifuddin Kitchlew was born in Amritsar, Punjab (now in India). They were both born and grew up at a time when the national activity of the Indian freedom struggle was at a low point. In 1857, the first struggle for Indian freedom had been waged and brutally suppressed by the British. The Indian National Congress had been formed in 1885, but at this time it was a party of elites not opposed to British rule. They merely demanded reforms and better positions for Indians within the British government. Moreover they were disconnected from the masses of Indian people. The fight for independence took a new form between the years 1920-1945 and both Ms. Nehru and Dr. Kitchlew were to play a central role in this fight.

After his early education, Saifuddin Kitchlew was sent off to Cambridge for his higher education and subsequently obtained a PhD in Philosophy from Berlin. Rameshwari Nehru, on the other hand, had a father with conservative views who arranged her marriage to Brijlal Nehru, the cousin of Jawaharlal Nehru, at the age of 16 in 1902. So, from an early age, the cause of women’s equality was close to her heart. She took out a women’s journal in Hindi in 1909, beginning to articulate the question of women’s equality in the context of India’s struggle for independence. D. D. Kosambi was born around the time that the other two were coming into their youth in 1907 in Goa (south-west of India).

Dr. Kitchlew returned to India just before the first world war started, in 1914. India unfortunately participated in the war even though it was fundamentally a European civil war, fought between Europeans for control of the colonies. Rather than any easing of colonial rule after the war, the British doubled down on India after the end of the first world war, restricting all freedoms and arresting people without warrants. In this time, Saifuddin became closely involved in what became a defining point of the first mass phase of the freedom struggle: the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

In 1919, in response to British actions after the first world war, Gandhi gave a call for a strike (hartal). Dr. Kitchlew was part of organizing a strike in Amritsar, in response to the call by Gandhi. The situation in India had radically changed by then. Dr. Kitchlew had already become a local leader of significance, and there was sufficient anger among the masses of people that his call drew an immense crowd. The British authorities, on hearing of his subsequent plans to continue the struggle, first tried to warn him and then subsequently arrested him. There was an immediate reaction to his arrest with crowds demanding his release, resulting in confrontations with the police, and police killings of several of the demonstrators.

The level of unrest, the discontent among the people, and their readiness to rise against British rule can be judged by the fact that the British were forced to declare martial law in the city. Despite a ban on public gatherings, a public meeting was organized on 13th April in protest at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, attended by at least 15,000 people and calling, among other things, for the release of Dr. Kitchlew. The British authorities, in an unprovoked act of remarkable cruelty, which perhaps exemplified the nature of colonial rule, blocked the only exit to the meeting ground and ordered an indiscriminate fire at the crowds. Figures for the dead and wounded are not available (official estimates are not trustworthy) but around 500 people were killed and more than a thousand were wounded. The event deeply disturbed the leadership of the Indian freedom struggle, and they pushed the struggle to a new stage of mass action.

The British were forced to release Dr. Kitchlew, because of public anger. These years were turbulent times in India. Right around this time, an anti-imperialist movement, called the Khilafat movement, was started by Muslims in India in support of the Ottoman Caliphate (ruled from what is now Turkey), which had been humiliated as a result of the first world war. Dr. Kitchlew had become a leader of national stature by now and was one of the four members of the All India Khilafat committee. Gandhi saw the Khilafat movement as an extraordinary opportunity to unite Hindus and Muslims in India, and Dr. Kitchlew was one of the enthusiastic participants in this struggle for religious unity against imperialism.

Rameshwari Nehru had meanwhile continued her activities educating people on women’s rights, the need for women enfranchisement, and mentoring many young women joining the freedom struggle by training them in the art of political organization. She founded the Delhi Women’s League and eventually, at one point, became president of the All India Women’s Conference, started in 1927. These organizations would try to actively involve women in the fight for social change. Rameshwari Nehru was a big admirer of Gandhi and worked to link the women’s struggle with the freedom movement, asking that women become full and equal participants in India’s struggle for freedom.

Kosambi had been in America during this time, getting a college degree in mathematics from Harvard University. He returned to India in 1930, and looking for practical applications of his scientific work, shunned any prestigious position. His father, one of the world’s foremost Buddhist scholars and an avid admirer of Gandhi, had led a local satyagraha in 1930 against a tax levied on salt by the British government. Kosambi himself was said to have had only one photograph on his desk in college at Harvard University: that of Gandhi.

In 1932, Gandhi started a campaign for social reform and eradication of untouchability in India. Rameshwari Nehru’s work and participation in this campaign were very significant–she  took a stand against the caste system in its entirety. Her experience working among the poorest sections of the Indian society was formative. In her speeches, she continually described the absolute misery of poverty and how much it affected her. She toured all around the country, thinking carefully about the needs of a country that had, at one point, literacy figures of 6% for men and 2% for women alongside 90% poverty. It forced her to rethink the women’s movement ideologically so as to include in it the majority of women in India, who were poor and working women. She saw the need to reform an education system which was created by the British to produce collaborators. She also theorized about the Indian family, its role, and its needs. She emphasized that it must see itself as connected to the nation, and ultimately the world.

The peace movement post-independence

All three of these figures grew up in the midst of the Indian freedom struggle, and all were to see the freedom of India as well as its tragic partition in 1947. The experience of colonial violence and fight for religious unity had shaped Dr. Kitchlew’s world view, and he was greatly dismayed at the partition of India, which led to inter-communal violence at a massive scale. After Independence, his active participation in politics was confined to the peace movement. He became President of the All India Peace Council, a post he held for many years. He traveled around the world, to Soviet Union and China in particular, and became respected as a world leader for peace. He was the first Indian to be awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, a prize shared, among others, with Paul Robeson.

After independence, Rameshwari Nehru associated herself with the All India Peace Council and the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization (later to merge into the All India Peace and Solidarity Organization). Her attraction to the peace movement was a consequence of her Gandhian values. She blessed the formation of the National Federation of Indian Women which attempted to broaden the women’s movement by basing it in the working class and peasantry. Hence Rameshwari Nehru was an early figure who foresaw the development of the women’s movement and linked the three causes: women’s equality, social development and peace. She mobilized support for liberation movements in Vietnam, Palestine and Algeria and traveled around the world to popularize the Stockholm Peace Appeal. She was given the Lenin Peace Prize in 1961.

Kosambi continued as a scholar of mathematics but perhaps more importantly contributed to the study of ancient Indian history. He saw history as a living reality, rather than a dead past. He built on Karl Marx’s view of history, but criticized it, saying that India had a history. He devoted much thought to the emergence and decline of Buddhism in India, which he saw as an extraordinarily advanced and humanist system of philosophy, and India’s greatest cultural contribution to the world. He was completely devoted to the peace movement, writing essays on science, peace and imperialism, joining the World Peace Council and leading India’s delegation to Helsinki in 1955. In a letter to Rameshwari Nehru on a peace convention, Kosambi said “Speaking not only for myself, but on behalf of all competent and honest scientists of my acquaintance, let me assure you that the work of your Convention is regarded by all of us as being of the utmost importance.”.

It is no small matter that these figures joined the peace movement. Their lives and work had intimately dealt with some of the fundamental issues that India had faced in the times they lived in: the violence of colonial rule, the extreme poverty created by imperialism, the need for social reform against the caste system in India, the freedom of women, unity and harmony between different religions, a scientific study of its history and revival of what India’s civilization had to contribute to the world. They exemplify the broad base and depth of the peace movement in India, its multi-faceted character. Their lives show both the immediate impact of the freedom struggle, as well as the the civilizational outlook which inspired it. This, in turn, explains the strength of the peace movement in India and its appeal to broad sections of the population. The unwavering support that the Indian people gave to the liberation struggles around the world was reflected in the policies of the Indian state for much of its time after Independence. It is, of course, important to remember the contribution of the Communist Party which laid the organizational base for this support.

There is much to learn from the dignified personalities and selfless service of these past figures. More so, however, one must learn from and study their life and ideas. They give us hope in dark times, and are shining luminaries of a movement that must be revived, for ideas that have eternal importance: peace and human dignity.

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