Karl Marx never visited India. In fact, he did not even step out of Europe. Born in the German city of Trier on May 5, 1818, Marx spent his early years in Bonn, Berlin, Paris, Cologne and Brussels before making London his home where he died and was buried.
In his lifetime, Marx may never have imagined that decades after his death, thousands of kilometres away from Europe, a small village in north India would be named after him.
Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh and about 40 kilometres southwest from it lies Marx Nagar.
The hamlet in Unnao district of the Indian state has nearly 50 houses. Some are made of bricks and cement while others of mud and straw. They were built around a rectangular open space in the village. Cows and buffaloes can be seen tethered in front of most of the houses. The population of the village is about 250.
Ram Shankar Sharma, a 56-year-old farmer, is a native of Marx Nagar. When I visit on a swelteringly hot day, he is sitting on a wooden bench under the slanting thatched awning of his home. Because of the afternoon heat he is wearing only a pair of shorts. As Sharma has visitors at home, his son hands over a shirt to him but Sharma is reluctant to wear it. He languidly places the shirt on his shoulder and continues our conversation about the village.
“It was on May 17, 1938, that our village was rechristened Marx Nagar. The village’s name earlier was Makoor,” he says. “My neighbour Ram Ghulam got this village renamed in honour of Karl Marx. You will find the name Marx Nagar on all official records,” he says.
“We have the name Marx Nagar on Aadhaar cards,” said Sharma. (Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identity number that can be obtained by residents of India, based on their biometric and demographic data.)
Marx died on March 14, 1883, and only a handful of people were present at his funeral. However, his political, economic, and social principles, popularly dubbed Marxism, started influencing millions of people across the globe as the 20th century dawned. India was no exception.
Political parties based on Marxist principles were formed in different countries in the world. Marxism became more popular as Communists captured power in Russia in 1917.
In India, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded on December 26, 1915, in Kanpur city, close to Lucknow.
Ram Ghulam was born towards the end of the 19th century and got heavily influenced by Marxism as he became a youth. He was one of the founding members of the Communist Party in Unnao.
The struggle against the British empire in India intensified in the second decade of the 20th century.
Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose had become the towering personalities who led the nation’s freedom struggle.
“As Ram Ghulam joined the freedom struggle, Unnao became a hub of the freedom movement in Uttar Pradesh,” says Sharma.
Political rallies in Unnao became common and so did police raids. A historic moment came for Makoor in 1937 when Ram Ghulam invited Subhash Chandra Bose to the village.
Bose reached Makoor from Unnao railway station on a bullock cart on May 17 and stayed here for three days. During his visit, Bose addressed several public meetings that were attended by thousands of people of Uttar Pradesh which was then known as United Province.
“It was in one of those public meetings that Ram Ghulam, with Bose’s consent, suggested that Makoor’s name be changed to Marx Nagar and people agreed,” Sharma says.
Exactly a year later, on May 17, 1938, Makoor was rechristened as Marx Nagar.
Ram Ghulam remained dedicated to Marxism but did not enter politics.
“He fought for the rights of the farmers and common people. He died in 1982 or 1983. He was in his mid-eighties then,” Sharma recalls.
Legacy lives on
Though Ram Ghulam’s house still exists, members of his family have moved to other places. “Sometimes, may be once in a year or so, they visit Marx Nagar,” Sharma says.
Even after India’s independence in 1947, young men from Marx Nagar and Unnao were influenced by Marxism and joined the Communist Party of India in large numbers.
Brij Pal Singh Yadav was born in Makoor a year after India became free. He joined the Communist Party of India in 1971 when he turned 23.
“I spent 14 months in the erstwhile USSR studying Marxism in depth. I met several politburo members there,” Yadav tells the Weekend Review.
He says there was a time following India’s independence when Marxism produced great political figures. Yadav names a few leaders — Shaukat Usmani, S.A. Dange, PC Joshi, Bhupesh Gupta, Mohit Sen.
I spent 14 months in the erstwhile USSR studying Marxism in depth. I met several politburo members there.
“The communists were never in a majority in the Indian Parliament but they always kept the government on its toes,” he says.
Many Marxists from Unnao were elected as legislators to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly.
Yadav quit the Communist Party of India in 1998. “It’s not that I hold a grudge against Marxism or Communism. But I lost interest in Marxism, I was disillusioned. I realised it was leading me to nowhere,” Yadav says.
Millions like him across the world gradually started losing faith in Marxism, he says. “The biggest reason was the disintegration of the USSR. If I talk about India, workers formed the backbone of the Communist Parties here. Major industries in India at present have closed or are in doldrums. Existing workers now no more want to get involved in trade unions. Now, industries are not run the way they were run earlier. Marxist leaders have alienated themselves from the masses,” Yadav says.
“Another major reason,” he says, “people in India are now divided on caste and communal lines. Earlier poverty and development were major election issues. Not so any more.”
Yadav says election results clearly show people in India are losing faith in Communist parties. India has two major communist parties — the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxists).
The strength of the Lower House of the Indian Parliament to which people directly elect representatives is 543.
The two Communists parties of India won as many as 54 seats in the 2004 general elections. But their strength reduced to 20 in the 2009 general elections and remained the same in 2014 as well.
Communists were considered invincible in two Indian states — West Bengal and Tripura but they have been uprooted in both states. Communists at present are in power only in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
So Karl Marx has a village in India named after him. His statues in public squares are not uncommon. But what were Marx’s views about India?
Veteran journalist Ambreesh Mishra who has closely studied Communism says, “Karl Marx regularly wrote for the New York Daily Tribune, an American magazine. In his despatches to it, Marx apparently took a grim view of Indian people and civilisation, dubbed as semi-barbarian and semi-civilised. But it must be seen in context. Political correctness, which could have sent up howls of protest, was not the norm back then and words like race, for instance, were often used with ethnic, cultural and geographical groups.
“He did critique the rapacious nature of the British colonial rule, but considered its cultural influences as civilising on India. That said, an Indian village being named after Marx is, at best, a curio. In India, people have names like Lenin and Stalin, it sure can put up with a non-descript rural hamlet called Marx Nagar.”
Rohit Ghosh is a writer based in Kanpur, India.