Usmani’s role in the history of the early British Communist Party is so interesting a vital part of the Party’s history, despite his distant connection, it seems churlish not to include him in the compendium of Communist Biographies:
Born in 1901, Shaukat (pron. Shavkat) Usmani was an Indian Communist organiser who was sentenced to a total of 16 years in jail after being tried in the Kanpur (Cawnpore) Case of 1923 and later the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929. During the latter case, he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate in a British general election for the British Communist Party from his prison cell in India in the May 30th 1929 general election for the Yorkshire constituency of Spen Valley. Usmani is believed to be the only candidate ever to stand in a British General Election whilst resident in India. He stood twice as a Communist candidate in Britain once in Spen Valley, the area south of Leeds and Bradford and north west of Dewsbury and north east of Halifax that was then a major textile workers’ centre and again in South East St Pancras.
The Spen Valley seat was significant since it was the focus of an attempt by the leader of a group of unambiguously right-leaning Liberals, Sir John Simon, to get back into Parliament and lead those Liberals who saw themselves as closer to the Tories and who would, in 1931, declare themselves Liberal Nationals and support the Ramsay MacDonald government that spilt with Labour. Simon led the Liberal trend that wanted to abandon free trade and declare support for the immediate introduction of protection as a means to avert the economic crisis. He had been the man who declared in 1926 that the General Strike was illegal, and who in 1930 headed the Commission to report on the situation in India, which became known as the Simon Commission. .
Usmani’s selection arose from his prominence in the Meerut trial, which involved 33 trades unionists (three of them Englishmen), mostly well-known figures in India. Because Usmani was a prisoner thousands of miles away, he was unable to conduct the campaign himself, so a deputy to represent him was chosen – one Billy Brain. “All available comrades in the West Riding branches together with Party leaders from London and Scotland led a hectic campaign which focussed attention on the conditions in India and showed that the crime of the Meerut prisoners was that they had sought to organise the Indian workers in Trade Unions in order to fight against the appalling conditions forced upon them by the management of British-owned companies. I went into the area as often as I could to lend a hand. If the people of the Spen Valley didn’t know much about Meerut and British rule in India before the election they certainly knew before it finished, and from that point of view the campaign was extremely successful.[Ernie Benson “Starve or rebel” (1980)]
It was common knowledge that Simon secured his Spen Valley seat in 1929, and a resultant cabinet post, as a result of a Tory abstention and many of the Liberal MPs who followed him into the Liberal National group were in a similar position. The formation of the breakaway group had a devastating impact on the future of the Liberal Party by dividing the Liberal vote and emphasising the organisation’s disunity.
Meerut was also distinguished by the fact that it was a Labour government that had given the go-ahead to a political trial of the left. The Meerut prisoners had been arrested on or about March 20th, 1929, amidst wholesale raids and house searches. These arrests and raids were made the occasion of imposing military demonstrations in various places throughout British India. Attempts were made to justify the case by denouncing them as Communists, as many were but many of them had no connection with the Communist movement. For example, Lester Hutchinson, later released as innocent after spending four years in prison, was arrested as an afterthought when he took up the task of carrying on some of the trade union and agitational work after the arrest of the others, was a merely journalist on the Indian Daily Mail and unconnected with the Labour movement.
The trial was long and controversial, enabling the Communist Party to again run Usmani in the 1931 general election for South East St Pancras against a Tory South African mining millionaire who was associated with the Cliveden set. It helped keep the case in the public eye to some extent. But the election of a National Government was not good news for the Meerut prisoners and the case trundled on.
The charge against the prisoners is of particular interest. “That in the year 1921 the … Communist International determined to establish a branch organisation in British India, and the accused … Shaukat Usmani and (others) entered into a conspiracy with certain other persons to establish such branch organisations with a view to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty of British India, and … carried out such plan of campaign with the assistance of … the Communist International… the accused formed a Workers and Peasants’ Party at Meerut and there held a Conference thereof.”
The complaint was essentially that of "incitement of antagonism between capital and labour", a phrase harkening back to the anti-combination laws in Britain of one hundred years before. The judgement contained the following admission from Mr. Justice Yorke: "As to the progress made in this conspiracy its main achievements have been the establishment of Workers and Peasant Parties in Bengal, Bombay and Punjab and the United Provinces, but perhaps of deeper gravity was the hold that the members of the Bombay Party acquired over the workers in the textile industry in Bombay as shown by the extent of the control which they exercised during the strike of 1928 and the success they were achieving in pushing forward a thoroughly revolutionary policy in the Girni Kamgar Union after the strike carne to an end." Usmani along with two others was sentenced to transportation for a period of 10 years. On appeal, in July 1933, the sentences were reduced and Usmani received 3 years `Rigorous Imprisonment’.
Usmani had been a very early leading activist of the Communist Party of India (CPI), formed in October 1920 in the Soviet city of Tashkent by a small group of revolutionaries and becoming a section of the Comintern in 1921. The émigré party did not have more than 10 members at the time of formation but efforts were undertaken to build the party in India. The British government hit back with a series of legal assaults against CPI – in Peshawar (1922), Kanpur (1924) and Meerut (1929). The accused in the cases included, among others, important Communist organisers who worked in India, such as Muzaffar Ahmad, Nalini Gupta and S.V. Ghate, and members of the émigré party, such as Rafiq Ahmad and Shaukat Usmani.
In the 1924 Conspiracy Case M.N. Roy, (who absconded), S.A. Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, Nalini Gupta, Shaukat Usmani, Singaravelu Chettiar, Ghulam Hussain and others were charged on March 17, 1924 as Communists seeking "to deprive the king emperor of his sovereignty of British India, by complete separation of India from imperialistic Britain by a violent revolution." In May 1924, four of them, Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, Gupta and Usmani were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment each. By this stage, Usmani was operating underground under the nom de guerre of Sikander Sur. His Comintern code name was D A Naoroji (sometimes wrongly rendered as Naoradji) and he is known to have attended the Sixth Congress of the Comintern.
After Kanpur, Britain had triumphantly declared that the case had “finished off the communists". But a year after, the Communist Party of India was again formally set up at Kanpur itself, in the form of a Workers and Peasants Party. After Meerut and the publicity generated by Usmani’s honorary candidatures in Yorkshire and Yorkshire, the CPI and its descendents would go on to be a major mass electoral force in modern day India in the form of the CPI (Marxist) and the CPI.
Much later in life, Usmani published several books. One was “Historic Trips of a Revolutionary – Sojourn in the Soviet Union”, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers – privately published limited edition, 1977). In this account, written in the mid-seventies, Shaukat Usmani describes three treks across the Soviet Union which he made in the 1920s, soon after the October Revolution. One begins in Peshawar, the second in Karachi, and the third in Delhi. These countries were at the time a part of India, but are now located in modern-day Pakistan. All of these treks ended in Moscow and at one point he describes his meeting with Stalin himself, which takes place during his first journey. During this meeting he negotiates his passage out of the Soviet Union and back to India, since once one established oneself for a stay in Moscow at that time; it was very difficult to leave the city.
He gives an account of his part in the Émigré Communist Party of India, and other examples of progress in his homeland like the Indian Military School. He gives colourful descriptions of his stays in Moscow, during which he lodges at the Hotel Delovoi Dvor (which has a meaning something akin to the “Business Courtyard”), and boards at the Hotel De Lux, once a gathering place for Communist leaders from all over the world. He also describes a trip from Tashkent through the Ukraine to Crimea. This book is focused mainly on the Middle Eastern states of the Soviet Union.
Usmani was very much seen as an emigre communist and became to be viewed as playing a factional role in the Comintern, being expelled from the CPI while in prison in 1932.
After independence, Usmani lived in Delhi in relative obscurity, although in his old age he was invited to Moscow and honoured as an old revolutionary. He was able to publish his “Four Travellers” [Karachi, Usta Publications Corp. 1950; First English Edition (originally published in 1939 as "Char Yatri" in Hindi and "Char Musafir" in Urdu)] An account of a journey through Jagdalak, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Tirmiz, Comsomol, Bukhara and Samarkand, this was a fact based novel about the trip of four Indian revolutionaries to the Turkestan republics, the central Asian part of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Usmani died in 1978.