Around two years ago, on 25 August 2013, my mother, a loyal reader of Jansatta—a Hindi daily—asked me to read a small piece in the editorial section of the newspaper. The piece in question was a reprint of an essay originally titled ‘Rajyavaad Aur Samrajyavaad’—“Monarchy and Imperialism”—written by Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist. The original essay had been printed in a journal named Swadesh, in 1928. In the essay, Premchand made the argument that imperialism had proved to be no better than monarchy, and that communism might prove to be equally, if not more, dangerous than imperialism. He argued that all the perils of capitalism would also plague communism, perhaps in an even more aggravated form. The editors of the newspaper, while reprinting the essay, changed the title to ‘Punjivaad Se Bhayankar Hai Saamyavaad’—“Communism is deadlier than Capitalism.”
The note accompanying the editorial stated, “In 1911, Premchand praised the Boleshevik revolution in a letter, and this alone became the basis of his being called a communist.” In a 1976 article for Social Scientist, academic KP Singh wrote, “Hindi criticism has failed to delineate a clear picture of Premchand’s works” and that “one section called him reformer and idealist, while the other devoted all its time to proving him a thorough-going Gandhian.” Although it is difficult to locate Premchand in the traditional left-right political spectrum, I was brought up to believe—by cultural lore and by my family, directly related to that of the novelist—that he reserved the largest part of his great heart for the poor. He was a well-known advocate of the abolition of the zamindari system, leading to many claiming that he was certainly a leftist, if not an outright communist. Given my understanding of Premchand through these anecdotes, it was difficult for me to believe that he appeared to be taking a stance that favoured capitalism through the essay.
On a second read, however, ideas that I associate with Premchand’s thought process began to surface. He began, “We live in times of imperialism. Earlier eras belonged to monarchy.”