It was while living in the US and working with revolutionary scholar Dr. Anthony Monteiro that I first heard of Romesh Chandra. I was introduced to him as a revolutionary human being, told stories of how he would carry himself, how he spoke, and the spirit of the world communist movement he carried with him. These formed a deep impression on me as a young person who was still trying to find out the right ways to be and act in a complex and often hostile world. These stories made him real to me, a human being like myself who was compelled to take righteous and difficult actions by a moral calling.
I and my comrades went on to research his life, we read his speeches and went to the archives. We began to refer to him as Romesh, as if he was one of us. It was through this research that I first learnt of Perin Chandra. She was mentioned in many of the writings we read and mentioned in passing by many people. People on the Indian left would talk of ‘Perin and Romesh Chandra’ as if they were two sides of the same person. We went on to meet Primla Loomba while visiting Delhi for a few months and she told us of how she was comrade in arms with Perin, they would spend days on end together, always engaged with intensity in political work and interacting with the Indian people. Yet, I did not fully grasp Perin’s life and the importance of her work.
Recently, in a conversation with a trade unionist my colleague was explaining our plans to honor Romesh Chandra and Paul Robeson together. Upon hearing Romesh’s name, he stressed that we must put Perin alongside them. He went on to describe his work with her. At the end he said, ‘She was like a mother to me.’ We were compelled by this moving testimony to research her life more, and yet could find few resources in terms of books or articles.
Perin Chandra is one of those self sacrificing revolutionaries produced by the Indian freedom struggle who lived completely and absolutely for the Indian people, and for humanity at large. She did not leave behind a memoir because she did not think it important to talk about herself. Yet, she remains alive among those who worked with her and knew her. Since that conversation I have spoken with many others who knew her, and each one of them has repeated the sentiment, she was like a mother to me.
Few among the younger generations know that a Perin Chandra existed, and this limits their imaginary for what they see possible for their own lives. This article is an effort to document what the people around her remember of her so her life can be made available as pedagogy to the youth.
Indian Freedom Movement
Perin Bharucha was born on October 2, 1918, the year of the satyagraha struggle in Kheda, exactly 51 years after Gandhi’s birth. She was born in Chaman, Balochistan which now falls in Pakistan, the daughter of Phiroze Byramji Bharucha, an army doctor and later Surgeon General of Lahore. She became involved in India’s struggle for freedom during her student days in Lahore. She soon became a leader in the student movement in Lahore, organizing a strong cadre of young people to participate in relief efforts for the Bengal famine, and other activities of the freedom movement.
After her graduation, she joined the Communist Party of India. In 1941 she was elected the first woman General Secretary of the All India Students Federation. Perin made a serious and stern student leader. In the year the Quit India movement was launched, 1942, she married her comrade Romesh Chandra. The two of them immersed themselves in political work of the party and the Quit India Movement in Lahore. Her closest associates in this time included Primla Loomba who would later lead the National Federation of Indian Women and with whom Perin also worked closely later. Also in 1942, Rameshwari Nehru was released from prison for her involvement in the Quit India campaign. Rameshwari was then head of the Punjab Women's Self-Defense League and she met with Perin to take over the organization of All India Women’s Council. Perin had collected a small group of young women with whom she worked among the poor to politically engage them and draw them into the struggle for freedom.
Perin and Romesh’s lives were uprooted in the partition of India and they shifted to Bombay, and then to Delhi. After India’s independence, Perin joined the Patriot, a newspaper started by Aruna Asaf Ali. In the 1960s she left the Patriot to work in the peace movement.
Beginnings of the Indian Peace Movement
The All India Peace Council was founded in 1951 to respond to the need for championing peace following the destruction of the second world war, and to carry out the education of the people on the link between imperialism and war, and the importance of peace for a newly independent nation such as India which was struggling with crushing poverty, hunger and illiteracy. Its founding members included Congress freedom fighters Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Pandit Sundarlal, communist party leaders Ajoy Ghosh and A K Gopalan, revolutionary scholars such as D D Kosambi, and revolutionary artists like Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Vallathol, among others. Romesh Chandra became its general secretary in 1952 with Saifuddin Kitchlew as President and several vice presidents that included DD Kosambi and Mulk Raj Anand.
On the other hand, the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation was founded in 1957 in Cairo to build solidarity with national liberation movements that were still struggling for freedom from colonial oppression across Africa and Asia and their promotion on the world stage. AAPSO aimed to mount an ideological defense of newly independent nations against world imperialism that was determined to prove that darker nations were not fit to rule themselves. The organization of AAPSO aimed to build on the legacy of the Bandung conference in 1955 to organize conferences attended by people from all the world and increase friendship and understanding between darker nations. It was organized in 1957 following two such conferences open to ordinary people held in New Delhi; the Conference of Asian Countries on the Relaxation of International Tension held in 1955 eleven days prior to the Bandung conference and attended by thousands of people, and the 1947 Inter Asian Relations Conference.
In India, the aims and activities of these two organizations were so closely linked that they merged together to form the All India Peace and Solidarity Organization in 1972. AIPSO adopted the slogan ‘Peace is everybody’s business’. Perin Chandra assumed leadership of AIPSO in 1972 and remained its general secretary till 1991.
AIPSO and the Struggle for India’s National Sovereignty and People’s Liberation
Under her leadership, AIPSO engaged in work on broad issues that had to do with India’s sovereignty, the world peace and solidarity movement. AIPSO was a broad movement, and the very antithesis of sectarian politics.
AIPSO was instrumental in organizing events and conferences in support of the people’s liberation struggle in Vietnam against American occupation, as well as the cause of the Palestinian people. It also played a huge role in Indian support for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. AIPSO worked to inform the Indian people about the genocide in Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi liberation struggle and developing political support for it. They organized relief efforts for the refugees flooding into Bengal from East Pakistan. The threat of direct war with the US made stronger by the American government sending their navy’s 7th fleet to the Bay of Bengal in support of the Pakistani genocidal army made a deep impression on the Indian people. After the independence of Bangladesh, the WPC awarded Sheikh Mujibur Rehman the Joliot Curie Peace Prize in 1973. Romesh visited Bangladesh to confer the award on him, and stayed in Bangabandhu’s house.
Perin’s consciousness was formed in the struggle against British imperialism and she was witness to the assault of American imperialism on African, Asian and Latin American liberation movements, including the assassination of leaders like Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende. She understood the workings of imperialism, and the American intelligence apparatus in particular. She did not underestimate the threat that American forces in India posed to the sovereign Indian state. It was in this context that she understood Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the emergency in 1975 in response to the Jayaprakash Narayan led movement to oust Indira Gandhi. She saw the importance of defending the Indian state, which was born out of a struggle that she herself had fought in. In this period Perin and AIPSO worked in tandem with the Indian state and Indira Gandhi’s government. In 1975, AIPSO organized the Patna conference against fascism.
The Patna conference was a marvel of organization. It collected about 6,000 delegates from all over India. A vast tent city was set up with space for the sessions, exhibitions, kitchens etc. The city was named after the Indian minister Lalit Narayan Mishra, who had been assassinated in a suspected CIA supported plot the same year. Halls and gates in the city upheld the names of anti-imperialist fighters from all over the world -- Salvador Allende, Mujibur Rehman, Martin Luther King Jr, Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Calbral among others. Leading up to the conference rallies and conferences were held in every corner of India against fascism, in which tens of millions of people participated.
The Patna conference put forward important ideas to understanding the world and domestic situation at that time, and its contributions remain relevant today. The conference put forward a ‘Declaration of Solidarity with the Struggle of the Indian People Against Imperialism, Fascism and Reaction’ which extended the full solidarity of the conference to ‘democratic forces in India and to the Government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’. They recognized the CIA’s efforts to sabotage democratic movements in the Indian subcontinent, most recently through the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. The American military had then been building a nuclear base in the Indian Ocean on Diego Garcia, which continues to be in American control today. Arms were being pumped at that time into Pakistan.
Further, they saw fascism expressing itself in India through the coming together of ‘right extremists and Left adventurists’ under the slogan of ‘total revolution’. They saw the emergency as a blow to fascist conspiracy in India and a win for the struggle for democracy. The way the Patna conference saw the forces of fascism is in contrast to the way the term is used today.
The Patna conference tied the struggle against fascism to the struggle against multinational corporations, feudal and monopoly interests, poverty and hunger. Fascism to them was linked to the action of forces aligned with world imperialism acting against a democratically elected government of the Indian people. They quoted Nehru to say that fascism and imperialism were twins. They saw the Indian state as an expression of the people’s democratic aspirations, and a bastion against fascism. Today, the labeling of a democratically elected Indian government as fascist by the Indian intelligentsia is in stark contrast to this. The role of imperialism in Indian politics today is underappreciated, and to determine the nature of the Indian state, we must understand the state’s relationship to Western imperialism.
Another remarkable conference was held in Bhopal in 1985 to observe one year since the horrific Bhopal gas tragedy. The gas tragedy had claimed around 4000 lives in and around Bhopal when a lethal gas leak occurred from American company Union Carbide’s factory in December 1984. Over 500,000 people were exposed to the highly toxic gas, leading to highly disabling and long term injuries in some cases. Union Carbide refused to take complete responsibility for the leak, despite conclusive proof of negligent practices. Several cases linked to this still remain open in Indian and American courts. AIPSO took up the charge for this and the conference organized in 1985 addressed multinational corporations in India and their contempt for the Indian people.
Perin also remained politically close to Indira Gandhi throughout her time in government. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi by operatives of the Khalistani movement, religious riots erupted in Delhi and Punjab. It was clear that this religious polarization was linked to Western and CIA support of the Khalistanis. In the years following this, Perin and AIPSO followed in Gandhi’s footsteps, working among the people to quell violence and mistrust. Massive peace rallies were held in Delhi in 1986 against religious extremism and for peace among the people.
AIPSO served as a broad forum for discussion and airing of different subjects to do with the Indian people’s struggle for democracy. Under Perin’s leadership, it concerned itself not only with the struggle for international solidarity and peace, but any topic that had to do with Indian society’s struggle against poverty, illiteracy and foreign domination. This followed naturally from their ideological linking of peace with national sovereignty and self determination.
The Conduct of a Revolutionary
Perin worked closely with Aruna Asaf Ali and Primla Loomba in Delhi who were President and Vice President of the National Federation of Indian Women. In studying the lives of Indian women revolutionaries one realizes how closely integrated into the freedom struggle was the movement for women’s liberation in India. It is through this history, and the support of these revolutionary women for the leadership of the national movement, as well as the history of leadership in the national movement by revolutionary women, that we must view the attacks on Gandhi as a misogynist.
Romesh Chandra was elected General Secretary of the World Peace Council in 1966 and spent the majority of his time traveling outside of India in connection with this work. In this time Primla Loomba and Perin would spend many days engaged in political work together from morning till evening. Like other revolutionaries, Perin formed deep and close bonds with her comrades based on shared commitments and the common trials of political life. She was loved deeply by those younger than her. She saw the development of younger cadres in the peace movement a central part of her work. She concerned herself with not only the political aspect of their lives, but also the personal. Dr. Sadashiva, who worked closely with her in the 1980s, told me that if he did not come to the AIPSO office for more than a few days she would personally drive over to his home to ask where he had been. She took responsibility for the younger people around her to train them to think not only politically, but to also deal with the trials of life. She viewed them as not only her cadre, but as the future of the nation.
Ram Mohan Rai, who came up in the student movement when Perin was leading AIPSO, narrated to me how she embraced the youth. As young people interested in the Soviet Union, Ram Mohan Rai and his colleagues were trying to organize a youth conference on friendship between India and the Soviet Union and decided to start a youth society for this purpose. The older leadership of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society (ISCUS) dismissed and discouraged them; they saw this endeavor as a competing organization to ISCUS. This of course was contrary to the spirit of solidarity movement, which has always attempted to engage and educate the youth on world affairs. It was Perin who lent her support to them at this time and made sure that a representative from the Soviet embassy attended the conference that was organized in Saharanpur. Perin strove to keep the culture of the peace movement broad and open, away from sectarianism and petty power politics.
Ram Mohan Rai visited Tashkent in 1981 under Perin’s recommendation for a youth summit. The experience influenced and affected him greatly, as he met students and youth from all over the world. The people he met there would ask him about three Indian figures -- revolutionary film actor Raj Kapoor whose films were popular all over the world, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was then loved in the Soviet Union, and Romesh Chandra. They would be greatly impressed when he told them of how he had attended classes in Delhi both with Romesh and Perin Chandra.
A Model for Us
Perin Chandra’s life and her work in the peace movement deserves study. In a time when the youth of this country are starved for models that are worthy of them, she shines as an example of a life of purpose and sacrifice. Her name should be known among the people of India, for she represents the best of the tradition of the Indian freedom struggle. Among those who knew her, she is remembered dearly as a kind but firm teacher who taught equally through example and intellectual training. At this time, when India stands at the crossroads between the dying West and the multipolar world in the process of being birthed, we look to her for the direction we must take. How can we stand in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world and our own country? Can we imagine a different future where peace is not a distant dream but the norm upon which human creativity, art and science can prosper? Her life shows us that we must fulfill our destiny as a people, complete the project of the freedom struggle she worked so hard to build, and achieve our country.
Thank you to Dr. Sadashiv and Ram Mohan Rai for sharing their experiences and understanding of their time in the peace movement for the purpose of this article.