Story of Narayan: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers

When a big power by armed intervention tries to impose in another country its own puppets in power, it no longer remains a domestic question but becomes an international issue of the highest importance.


Excerpts from the book Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers published by Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Inc

by Joel Whitney

Such is the spirit that breathes . . . to make loud the . . . insistence that the poor have been placed among us for the primary purpose of affording the comfortable a chance to discover how virtuous they are. —Murray Kempton

 Propaganda is not literature. —George Saunders

In 1958, Jayaprakash Narayan, a socialist turned Gandhian, took Wendy and Allan Scarfe across India by train. The two Australian tourists watched as Narayan and his wife were greeted by crowds, who hurled garlands and shouted, “Long live Jayaprakash!” Amazed at Narayan and his wife’s reception, the Australian couple joined a celebration for a raja who had just given hundreds of acres of property to the area’s landless poor. In the 1950s, there were two especially high-ranking taboos for anti-Communists, and either could trigger a CIA intervention. Private corporations had often served Western powers as proxies for the plunder of cheap resources and labor in the developing world. By World War I, these corporate and government holdings had climaxed with Western powers holding or controlling as much as 85 percent of the world’s landmass.3 People’s uprisings in these poorer nations in nationalist and anti-imperialist movements forced Europeans and Americans to relinquish control over non-European spaces and populations. But while nationalist uprisings in India and around the world could hardly be stopped after World War II, history would prove that if these people dared take control of their resources, this purported act of war could trigger an invasion, one that might be spearheaded by the new agency, the CIA. When Iran nationalized the British oil conglomerate that became BP, the British enlisted the Americans in the summer of 1953 to overthrow Iran’s elected president, replacing him with monarchy. The following year, Guatemala sought to distribute the United Fruit Company’s unused lands to Guatemala’s poor but the United States intervened, replacing democrats with dictatorship.

So what the Scarfes saw in India was an unusual way around the ban on land redistribution. Narayan was part of a movement called Bhoodan, by which rich landholding elite were petitioned to donate land voluntarily to landless Indians. In the world’s most populous democracy, this redistribution could address the nation’s legacy of inequality which, most recently, British occupation had foisted upon the Indians and ruthlessly maintained. What was unusual about the Bhoodan movement was that it was not only approved by anti-Communists but it was also co-led by a figure revered by the Congress for Cultural Freedom; the CCF had even put him on its stationery beside John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and Reinhold Niebuhr. At the height of the movement, in fact, Encounter gave more space to Bhoodan, with its Gandhian and religious tint, and to its founder, Vinoba Bhave, than it gave to American desegregation or a long list of other important topics. In the middle and late 1950s, then, Narayan was a unique figure. Revered by the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s anti-Communists, he was at the same time engaged in a form of land redistribution which was largely approved of. His early life also exposed the lie of what would later be called modernization theory: namely, that contact with the West helped bolster democratic institutions in the non-Western world.

Jayaprakash Narayan was born on October 11, 1902, in a village near Patna in Bihar State. Throughout his primary and secondary schooling he paid fees; in this part of India there were no public schools under the British. His childhood was marked by idyllic nights where his father might invite travelling musicians to play sitar and tabla in the upper courtyard on their riverside house. Yet his father’s engineering work kept both parents away from home. And the house itself was prone to flooding. At age 9, Narayan was sent to Patna school, where he devoted himself to his studies and earned a scholarship to Patna College.

As a teenager and idealist, Narayan was inspired by the Bengali freedom fighters who sought India’s independence, though at the time doing so through less-than-peaceful techniques. Under these activists’ influence, Narayan sought to become Swadeshi, or self-sufficient, and boycotted British institutions when he could, as well as products and textiles—which were made from raw materials stolen from India and sold back to its people.

But his wife Prabhavati Devi—when he married in October 1920—went to work for Gandhi allowing Narayan to finish his studies. Prabhavati Devi’s work with Gandhi and his wife Kasturba would keep Narayan close to the Gandhian ban on violence and even coercion. But times of war make for terrible cauldrons for democratic freedoms and India after World War I fell victim to the repressive Rowlatt Act. This was an attempt to preserve the official wartime censorship, along with preemptive and indefinite imprisonment of alleged conspirators against the British. Gandhi called the act, named for Sir Sidney Rowlatt and rubber stamped in March 1919, a form of collective punishment for the political crimes of the few, and responded with a general strike, or hartal, which crippled the Indian economy. After violence erupted, Gandhi called a halt to this campaign, as he frequently did when noncooperation turned violent; he asked those guilty of crimes to confess and announced a fast. But with fears of Hindus and Muslims joining together in the strikes, the government of Punjab seized Congress participants from both religious communities to send a message. When protests resumed, the British sent in Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. Between ten thousand and twenty thousand people descended on Amritsar’s public garden for a religious festival that violated the ban on protests, and Dyer ordered his troops to fire on civilians without warning. “With 1,650 bullets he scored 379 dead and 1,137 wounded,” recounted Narayan’s biographers. With only 134 bullets missing a civilian on average, the British were economical with their hardware. To make it worse, Dyer “made no provision whatsoever for caring for the wounded.” Though a commission of inquiry condemned it, Britain’s acting-governor applauded the British savagery. 

These events filled the Congress Party’s rolls and spurred new passions for independence. “In an inspired fervor thousands of students pulled out of schools, giving up their education and future career for achieving the greater, unselfish goal of national liberty.”5 Narayan too was swept away, and the once-enthused scholar walked out of classes. Initially he matriculated in a school set up for walkouts like him. But soon thereafter the Congress was outlawed, and Gandhi was arrested for his retaliatory non-cooperative response, which erupted into violence in which twenty-two policemen were killed. Not only was the most exciting event of Narayan’s life apparently quashed, but the institution of higher learning set up for Indians, by Indians, was only able to offer two years of higher education on the donors’ funds. Narayan the scholar and activist had come to a frustrating dead end. So he left for America.

But when Narayan returned to India nearly eight years later, in late November 1929, he was a man transformed. He had washed grapes and worked on a vineyard to pay for his studies at the University of California at Berkeley. When a friend had invited him to the University of Wisconsin, where he had earned a Bachelor’s degree in sociology, he had absorbed left wing and radical ideas. At Ohio State University, Narayan’s Master’s thesis “was declared the best paper of the year.” His professors said that Narayan had been one of the university’s best students ever to attend. One Professor Dumley had written that he bore “the germs of leadership” and “was aggressive in thought but not action” and had noted his high “ideals of human welfare.”

During that infamously roaring decade, he had seen American fits of manic spending and self-conscious escapism but alongside it all, he had witnessed how capitalism left its streets lined with castaways and rejects. This had moved him terribly. During a botched tonsil operation, which had left him convalescing for three months, he had gotten to experience this American poverty and inequality firsthand; his bill of $900 would amount to about $12,000 today. Against this backdrop his experience was an under-sung one. The Easterner, emissary from the developing world, had recoiled at US poverty rather than the other way around. He had returned, then, to his native India convinced that inequality “of wealth, property, rank, culture, and opportunity” was the real enemy of the people and—armed with newfound Marxist-Leninist ideas—he had grown determined to end this inequality, which led him right back to the struggle with the British.

Narayan dreamed of opening a sociology department and working in academia. But Gandhi and Nehru pulled him into the Congress apparatus and soon he made himself indispensable, working on labor. Narayan had been radicalized by the bloody events that had preceded his departure. But as a boy, he had been inspired by tales of Gandhi’s great satyagraha in South Africa, where the young lawyer had fought for the rights of ethnic Indians. These stories “left imprints on [Narayan’s] inner being.”9 But Narayan had also read the socialist M.N. Roy, who had persuaded Narayan that Gandhi “was against the social revolution and would at a moment of crisis hasten to hold up the [British] system of exploitation and inequality.”  This ambivalence about the Mahatma would bond him to Nehru.

Nehru, too, harbored left wing and socialist views. When they met that December Nehru caught Narayan up on political events that had taken place in his absence, including the resurrection of the Congress Party. Though Nehru was a socialist of the Fabian variety, preferring a gradual approach to revolution, they “were both highly educated, highly original thinkers, saw Indian affairs from an international perspective, and had a passion for the life of politics and for national independence. Each of them was critical of Gandhi’s economic theories and his technique of civil disobedience and noncooperation, feeling that socialism was more likely to lead to a better world.” A month after Narayan’s return, Congress leaders met at Lahore and declared themselves independent of Great Britain. Though this was a largely ceremonial act, the emotion of the celebrations inspired Narayan.

“It is the inalienable right of the Indian people to have freedom. We hold it a crime against man and God to submit any longer,” read the declaration. When Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, refused the demands, Gandhi announced a program of noncooperation that would start with a march to the sea to make salt. Salt was one of the monopolies the British had imposed on the Indians, and Gandhi would march two hundred and forty miles, which resulted in a trail of followers that stretched two miles, in order to break the monopoly. Some feared the sixty-oneyear-old Mahatma would not survive the march. When he did, however, and he and his fellow protesters heated the water ceremonially for salt, it marked the beginning of another mass strike. Meanwhile, in the chaos that ensued around the nation, mass arrests led to more mass protests and so on, in a rapid spiral, until finally Lord Irwin sent in a battalion to fire on protesters, but the soldiers refused. But with a media blackout ordered, including a moratorium on any reporting about his government, Lord Irwin ordered the military to retake by force the city of Peshawar, which had been occupied by the so-called Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. Meanwhile, working out of Nehru’s old house, Narayan appealed to Indian laborers to stick with the party. He appealed for the return of those who had left. He made international labor contacts. And his group, the Congress Labor Research Department, also managed to bring Indian labor in line with the International Labor Organization’s conventions for the first time. When protests brought them scores of injured, Jayaprakash and Prabhavati tended to their bullet wounds. This was another moment that for the rest of his life would nurture Narayan’s hatred for British rule, his biographers recall.

Emergency Powers legislation formalized Great Britain’s absolute rule and again the Congress Party was banned. “Jayaprakash became an individual atom of a giant movement in which millions of people felt a bond of unity against an oppressor,” wrote Allan and Wendy Scarfe. Negotiations between Gandhi and Lord Irwin incensed British leadership and prompted Lord Irwin’s replacement as viceroy with an “anti-negotiator,” Lord Willington, who “promulgated new ordinances reintroducing imprisonment without trial, confiscation of property and an Emergency Press Act silencing news of his rule.” He also worked to wedge apart the Hindus and Muslims by scheming with the figures who would form the Muslim League and agitate for a separate Muslim state in Pakistan. This group was financed by the Aga Khan. (The Aga Khan’s money, incidentally—filtered through his son Sadruddin—helped to finance The Paris Review. It was at least in part wedge money to split the same factions the British feared in India: Muslims and Hindus.)

When a British delegation from Parliament came to study Lord Willington’s repression, Gandhi and much of the Congress Party were in jail. Narayan had been engaged in printing the Congress’s tracts and pamphlets illegally, the Indo-British counterpart to samizdat. But as he had managed to stay out of jail, he now evaded police to meet the Parliamentary delegation. He accompanied the delegates to sites of British atrocities and introduced them to activists around the country. The moment that the Parliamentary delegation left, Narayan was apprehended and sent to prison. There he encountered Minoo Masani and the milieu out of which he would put together the socialist wing of the Congress Party, which he named the Congress Socialist Party. He originally hoped to keep the new party within the Congress fold. But in 1935 the Government of India Act enfranchised thirty-four million Indian voters, a huge new constituency but only one tenth of India’s population. Nehru and Gandhi wanted to participate, but Narayan was disgusted with this partial gift and split off. Narayan spent the 1930s and early 1940s in and out of jail, calling for socialist rebellion. His British jailers tortured him. In 1948, after the joys of independence and the horrors of partition, he launched what became one of the most popular unions in India, putting him effectively in charge of a force of a million workers. His relationship with Nehru became increasingly fraught. When the Congress Party won the 1952 elections, Nehru invited Narayan to explore the prospect of socialists rejoining the Congress Party, but these negotiations petered out.

In the early and mid-1950s, Narayan went through a major shift in his thinking. Again disenchanted with the political process, he was moved to do a jivandan, which meant “to offer his own life to the service of [a] social movement.” His movement would be a middle way between Gandhian care for the poor and socialist land redistribution. In founder Vinoba Bhave’s vision, the excess land, or Bhoodan, of rich landholders was donated—voluntarily—to the poor. This excess land gave the movement its name. Instead of asking for money for a nonprofit, in other words, these activists were asking alms in land, sometimes whole villages, redistributed from top to bottom. “Vinoba Bhave started going from village to village on foot and asking those who have land, to give part of it for the benefit of those who do not,” Narayan once explained. The scheme’s simplicity even to him sounded “nonsensical, foolish, but it seems to be working . . . . We are all human beings,” Narayan continued, the landlord is a human being, the capitalist is a human being; there is something in all of us to which this man is appealing and there is good response—hundreds and thousands of acres of land have already been given to him. You know that I have dedicated my life to this new movement.

 Therefore Bhoodan Narayan explained, is an application on a general scale of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent technique of revolution. No heart or mind has been changed by law; no individual made virtuous by coercion. Gandhiji’s technique of conversion was based on faith in the possibility of improving man. Narayan soon became second in command of this movement after Bhave himself. As such, Narayan occupied a unique space as the intellectual heir of both Gandhi and of Karl Marx. But in India, the CCF magazines would boost this version of land reform, with nearly a dozen articles in Encounter alone during the 1950s and early 1960s. Some of the articles in CCF magazines criticized the scheme. But many approved, though these same magazines would denounce land reform elsewhere, even where done without violence and with vast approval by the public and their elected officials. Never mind that the poor were getting land. What was it that allowed Bhoodan, a unique sort of land redistribution, to be at least debatable in India but inexcusable elsewhere? Was it that a friend of the Congress for Cultural Freedom earned it a pass?

Narayan shifted his focus around the same time as Encounter’s launch in England, and the launch of The Paris Review in New York and Paris. Independent India’s founders were among the leading practitioners of neutrality. This was because of Nehru’s socialism and the British occupation confirming much of the socialist critique. But these views were balanced by strong cultural ties to the English-speaking world. As such, India’s leaders refused to align solely with either the United States or USSR. Because of this, the CIA sought to penetrate India. It would do so by using the local affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom as a foothold, and that affiliate would include Narayan and Masani among its members. India nevertheless vacillated from side to side, like a sail in changing winds. While US secretary of state John Foster Dulles saw neutrality as “immoral and shortsighted,” Nehru sought “to avoid entanglement in power politics and not to join any group of powers as against any other group.”

No single event better prescinded the rise of the neutral Third World, later called the Non-Aligned Movement, than the Bandung conference in Indonesia, which began on April 18, 1955. It opened with a speech by the Indonesian president Sukarno, who implored the world’s powers to forgo their addiction to intervention and replace it with a principle summed up by the phrase “live and let live!” In the United States, this attitude was traditionally called isolationism. The CIA later came to hate Sukarno so much that they planted fake news pieces about an alleged affair with a Russian stewardess and then shot a porn film, which they called Happy Days. Unable to find a decent lookalike, the Agency hired an actor to wear a latex Sukarno mask designed by the CIA’s Technical Services Division and distributed the film throughout Southeast Asia.

Such dirty tricks were part of what repelled the nonaligned movement from the United States and may have helped rally those non-aligned nations around China’s Zhou En-lai, whose presence at the Bandung conference was significant (not least of all because the US tried to murder him en route). Nevertheless, when Nehru boomed out his neutralist creed, “I do not believe in the Communist or the anti-Communist approach!” Bandung delegates roared with approval. When Egypt’s Nasser, also in attendance, declared that “the game of power politics in which small nations can be used as tools must be stopped!” they cheered even more. But some Indians saw that neutralism could cut both ways. When Nehru was initially silent in the face of Soviet bloodletting during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Narayan and the Indian branch of the CCF were shocked. Though Narayan had dedicated his life—lately—to quieter grassroots campaigns seemingly outside the political fray, he had not withdrawn completely from the ugly world of realpolitik, and this incident elicited a brief return from his focus on the Bhoodan movement. Narayan saw the Soviet move as comparable to the French–English occupation of Egypt, which Nehru had denounced resoundingly in support of Egypt and Nasser. As the Indian CCF’s honorary president, Narayan issued a statement: “Russia has no right to be in Hungary. No one can question the right of the Hungarian or any other people, including the Indian people, to choose a Communist form of government, if they so desire.” Narayan continued,

That would be a domestic affair. But when a big power by armed intervention tries to impose in another country its own puppets in power, it no longer remains a domestic question but becomes an international issue of the highest importance.

These statements ran with giant headlines in one of the many national Congress for Cultural Freedom newsletters, and American members delighting over the denunciation of Nehru and recapping the quotations in press releases may have missed that Narayan was privileging national sovereignty above all else, to denounce the Indian leader. Yet the phrase “when a big power by armed intervention” showed that he was speaking to the United States too…

Want to read this fascinating account, click here to have your copy

The author is a Brooklyn-based writer and a founder of Guernica: A Magazine of Global Arts & Politics. 

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