Emergence of New Forces
The year 1927 witnessed many portents of national recovery and the emergence of the new trend of socialism. Marxism and other socialist ideas spread rapidly. Politically this force and energy found reflection in the rise of a new left wing in the Congress under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. The left wing did not confine its attention to the struggle against imperialism. It simultaneously raised the question of internal class oppression by the capitalists and landlords.
Indian youth were becoming active. All over the country youth leagues were being formed and student conferences held. The first All-Bengal Conference of Students was held in August 1928 and was presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru. After this, many other student associations were started in the country and hundreds of student and youth conferences held. Moreover, the young Indian nationalists began gradually to turn to socialism and to advocate radical solutions for the political, economic and social ills from which the country was suffering. They also put forward and popularised the programme of complete independence. Socialist and Communist groups came into existence in the 1920s. The example of the Russian Revolution had aroused interest among many young nationalists. Many of them were dissatisfied with Gandhian political ideas and programmes and turned to socialist ideology for guidance. M.N. Roy became the first Indian to be elected to the leadership of the Communist International. In 1924, the government arrested Muzaffar Ahmed and S.A. Dange, accused them of spreading Communist ideas, and tried them along with others in the Kanpur Conspiracy case. In 1925, the Communist Party came into existence. Moreover, many worker and peasant parties were founded in different parts of the country. These parties and groups propagated Marxist and communist ideas. At the same time they remained integral parts of the national movement and the National Congress.
The peasants and workers were also once again stirring. In Uttar Pradesh, there was large-scale agitation among tenants for the revision of tenancy laws. The tenants wanted lower rents, protection from eviction and relief from indebtedness. In Gujarat, the peasants protested against official efforts to increase land revenue. The famous Bardoli Satyagraha occurred at this time. In 1928, under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel the peasants organised a No Tax Campaign and in the end won their demand. There was a rapid growth of trade unionism under the leadership of the All-India Trade Union Congress. Many strikes occurred during 1928. There was a long strike lasting for two months in the railway workshop at Kharagpur. The South Indian Railway workers went on strike. Another strike was organised in the Tata Iron and Steel Works at Jamshedpur. Subhas Chandra Bose played an important role in the settlement of this strike. The most important strike of the period was in the Bombay textile mills. Nearly 150,000 workers went on strike for over five months. This strike was led by the communists. Over five lakhs of workers took part in strikes during 1928.
Another reflection of the new mood was the growing activity of the revolutionary movement which too was beginning to take a socialist turn. The failure of the First Non-Cooperation Movement had led to the revival of the revolutionary movement. After an All India Conference, the Hindustan Republican Association was founded in October 1924 to organise an armed revolution. The government struck at it by arresting a large number of youth and trying them in the Kakori Conspiracy Case (1925). Seventeen were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, four were transported for life, and four, including Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla, were hanged. The revolutionaries soon came under the influence of socialist ideas, and in 1928, under the leadership of Chandra Shekhar Azad changed the name of their organisation to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA).
They also gradually began to move away from individual heroic action and acts of violence. But the brutal lathi-charge on an anti- Simon Commission demonstration on 30 October 1928 led to a sudden change. The great Punjabi leader Lala Lajpat Rai died as a result of the lathi blows. This enraged the youth and on 17 December 1928 Bhagat Singh, Azad and Rajguru assassinated Saunders, the British police officer who had led the lathi charge.
The HSRA leadership also decided to let the people know about their changed political objectives and the need for a revolution by the masses. Consequently, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly on 8 April 1929. The bomb did not harm anyone, for it had been deliberately made harmless. The aim was not to kill but, as their leaflet put it, “to make the deaf hear”. Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt could have easily escaped after throwing the bomb but they deliberately chose to be arrested for they wanted to make use of the court as a forum for revolutionary propaganda.
In Bengal too revolutionary activities were revived. In April 1930, a well-planned and large-scale armed raid was organised on the government armoury at Chittagong under the leadership of Surya Sen. This was the first of many attacks on unpopular government officials. A remarkable aspect of the terrorist movement in Bengal was the participation of young women. The Chittagong revolutionaries marked a major advance. Theirs was not an individual action but a group action aimed at the organs of the colonial state.
The government struck hard at the revolutionaries. Many of them were arrested and tried in a series of famous cases. Bhagat Singh and a few others were also tried for the assassination of Saunders. The statements of the young revolutionaries in the courts and their fearless and defiant attitude won the sympathy of the people. Their defence was organised by Congress leaders who were otherwise votaries of non-violence. Particularly inspiring was the hunger strike they undertook as a protest against the horrible conditions in the prisons. As political prisoners they demanded an honourable and decent treatment in jail. During the course of this hunger strike, Jatin Das, a frail young man, achieved maityrdom after a 63-day-long epic fast. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were executed on 23 March 1931, despite popular protest. In a letter to the Jail Superintendent written a few days before their execution, the three affirmed: “Very soon, the final battle will begin. Its outcome will be decisive. We took part in the struggle and we are proud of having done so.”
In two of his last letters, the 23-year-old Bhagat Singh also affirmed his faith in socialism. He wrote: “The peasants have to liberate themselves not only from foreign yoke but also from the yoke of landlords and capitalists.” In his last message of 3 March 1931 he declared that the struggle in India would continue so long as “a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indian.” Bhagat Singh defined socialism in a scientific manner—it meant the abolition of capitalism and class domination. He also made it clear that much before 1930 he and his comrades had abandoned terrorism. In his last political testament, written on 2 February 1931, he declared: “Apparently, I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. … Let me announce with all the strength at my command that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods.”
Bhagat Singh was also fully and consciously secular. He often told his comrades that communalism was as big an enemy as colonialism and was to be as firmly opposed. In 1926, he had helped establish the Punjab Naujawan Bharat Sabha and had become its first secretary. Two of the rules of the Sabha, drafted by Bhagat Singh, were: “To have nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas” and “to create the spirit of general toleration among the people considering religion as a matter of personal belief of man and to act upon the same fully.”
The national revolutionary movement soon abated though stray activities were carried on for several years more. Chandra Shekhar Azad was killed in a shooting encounter with the police in a public park, later renamed Azad Park, at Allahabad in February 1931. Surya Sen was arrested in February 1933 and hanged soon after. Hundreds of other revolutionaries were arrested and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment, some being sent to the Cellular Jail in the Andamans.
Thus a new political situation was beginning to arise by the end of the twenties. Writing of these years, Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, recalled later that “some new force was working of which even those, whose knowledge of India went back for 20 or 30 years, had not yet learnt the full significance.” The government was determined to suppress this new trend. As we have seen, the revolutionaries were suppressed with ferocity. The growing trade union movement and the communist movement were dealt with in the same manner. In March 1929, thirty-one prominent trade union and communist leaders (including three Englishmen) were arrested and, after a trial (Meerut Conspiracy Case) lasting four years, sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.
Boycott of The Simon Commission
The catalyst to the new phase of the movement was provided when, in November 1927, the British government appointed the Indian Statutory Commission, known popularly after the name of its chairman as the Simon Commission, to go into the question of further constitutional reform. All the members of the Commission were Englishmen. This announcement was greeted by a chorus of protest from all Indians. What angered them most was the exclusion of Indians from the Commission and the basic notion behind this exclusion that foreigners would discuss and decide upon India’s fitness for self-government. In other words, this British action was seen as a violation of the principle of self-determination and a deliberate insult to the self-respect of the Indians. At its Madras session in 1927, presided over by Dr Ansari, the National Congress decided to boycott the Commission “at every stage and in every form”. The Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha decided to support the Congress decision. In fact, the Simon Commission united, at least temporarily, different groups and parties in the country. As a gesture of solidarity with the nationalists, the Muslim League even accepted the principle of joint electorates, provided seats were reserved for the Muslims.
All important Indian leaders and parties also tried to meet the challenge of the Simon Commission by getting together and trying to evolve an alternative scheme of constitutional reforms. Tens of conferences and joint meetings of leading political workers were held. The end result was the Nehru Report named after its chief architect, Motilal Nehru, and finalised in August 1928. Unfortunately, the All Party Convention, held at Calcutta in December 1928, failed to pass the Report. Objections were raised by some of the communal-minded leaders belonging to the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sikh League. Thus the prospects of national unity were foiled by communal groups. Communalism began to grow steadily after this.
It should also be noted that there existed a basic difference between the politics of the nationalists and the politics of the communalists. The nationalists carried on a political struggle against the alien government to win political rights and freedom for the country. This was not the case with the communalists, Hindu or Muslim. Their demands were made on the nationalists; on the other hand, they usually looked to the foreign government for support and favours. They frequently struggled against the Congress and cooperated with the government.
Far more important than the proceedings of the All Parties Conference was the popular upsurge against the Simon Commission. The Commission’s arrival in India led to a powerful protest movement in which nationalist enthusiasm and unity reached new heights.
On 3 February, the day the Commission reached Bombay, an all-India hartal was organised. Wherever the Commission went, it was greeted with hartals and black-flag demonstrations under the slogan ‘Simon Go Back’. The government used brutal suppression and police attacks to break the popular opposition.
The anti-Simon Commission movement did not immediately lead to wider political struggle because Gandhi, the unquestioned though undeclared leader of the national movement, was not yet convinced that the time for struggle had come. But popular enthusiasm could not be held back for long as the country was once again in a mood of struggle.
The National Congress soon reflected this new mood. Gandhi came back to active politics and attended the Calcutta session of the Congress in December 1928. He now began to consolidate the nationalist ranks. The first step was to reconcile the militant left wing of the Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru was now made the President of the Congress at the historic Lahore session of 1929. This event had its romantic side too. Son had succeeded father (Motilal Nehru was the President of the Congress in 1928) as the official head of the national movement, marking a unique family triumph in the annals of modern history.
The Lahore session of the Congress gave voice to the new, militant spirit. It passed a resolution declaring Poorna Swaraj (Complete Independence) to be the Congress objective. On 31 December 1929 was hoisted the newly adopted tri-colour flag of freedom. 26 January 1930 was fixed as the first Independence Day, which was to be so celebrated every year with the people taking the pledge that it was “a crime against man and God to submit any longer” to the British rule. The Congress session also announced the launching of a civil disobedience movement. But it did not draw up a programme of struggle. That was left to Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress organisation being placed at his disposal. Once again the nationalist movement led by Gandhi faced the government. The country was again filled with hope and exhilaration and the determination to be free.
The Civil Disobedience Movement
The Civil Disobedience Movement was started by Gandhi on 12 March 1930 with his famous Dandi March. Together with 78 chosen followers, Gandhi walked nearly 375 km from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, a village on the Gujarat sea-coast. Day after day, newspapers reported his progress, his speeches and the impact on the people. Hundreds of village officials on his route resigned their jobs. On 6 April, Gandhiji reached Dandi, picked up a handful of salt and broke the salt law as a symbol of the Indian people’s refusal to live under British-made laws and therefore under British rule. Gandhiji declared:
The British rule in India has brought about moral, material, cultural, and spiritual ruination of this great country. I regard this rule as a curse. I am out to destroy this system of Government. … Sedition has become my religion. Ours is a non-violent battle. We are not to kill anybody but it is our dharma to see that the curse of this Government is blotted out.
The movement now spread rapidly. Violation of salt laws all over the country was soon followed by defiance of forest laws in Maharashtra, Karnataka and the Central Provinces and refusal to pay the rural chaukidan tax in eastern India. Everywhere in the country people joined hartals, demonstrations and the campaign to boycott foreign goods and to refuse to pay taxes. Lakhs of Indians offered satyagraha. In many parts of the country, the peasants refused to pay land revenue and rent and had their lands confiscated. A notable feature of the movement was the wide participation of women. Thousands of them left the seclusion of their homes and offered satyagraha. They took active part in picketing shops selling foreign cloth or liquor. They marched shoulder to shoulder with the men in processions.
The movement reached the extreme north western corner of India and stirred the brave and hardy Pathans. Under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as ‘the Frontier Gandhi’, the Pathans organised the society of Khudai Khidmatgars (or Servants of God), known popularly as Red Shirts. They were pledged to non-violence and the freedom struggle. Another noteworthy incident occurred in Peshawar at this time. Two platoons of Garhwali soldiers refused to open fire on non-violent mass demonstrators even though it meant facing court martial and long terms of imprisonment. This episode showed that nationalism was beginning to penetrate the Indian army, the chief instrument of British rule.
Similarly, the movement found an echo in the eastern-most corner of India. The Manipuris took a brave part in it and Nagaland produced a brave heroine in Rani Gaidilieu, who at the age of 13 responded to the call of Gandhi and the Congress and raised the banner of rebellion against foreign rule. The young Rani was captured in 1932 and sentenced to life imprisonment. She wasted her bright youthful years in the dark cells of various Assam jails, to be released only in 1947 by the government of free India. Jawaharlal Nehru was to write of her in 1937: “A day will come when India also will remember her and cherish her.”
The government’s reply to the national struggle was the same as before—an effort to crush it through ruthless repression, lathi-charges and firing on unarmed crowds of men and women. Over 90,000 satyagrahis, including Gandhiji and other Congress leaders, were imprisoned. The Congress was declared illegal. The nationalist press was gagged through strict censorship of news. According to official figures over 110 persons were killed and over 300 wounded in police firings. Unofficial estimates place the number of dead far higher. Moreover, thousands of persons had their heads and bones broken in lathi-charges. South India in particular experienced repression in its most severe form. The police often beat up men just for wearing khadi or Gandhi caps.
Meanwhile, the British government summoned in London in 1930 the first Round Table Conference of Indian leaders and spokesmen of the British government to discuss the Simon Commission Report. But the National Congress boycotted the Conference and its proceedings proved abortive; for a conference on Indian affairs without the Congress was like staging Ramlila without Rama.
The government now made attempts to negotiate an agreement with the Congress so that it would attend the Round Table Conference. Finally, Lord Irwin and Gandhiji negotiated a settlement in March 1931. The government agreed to release those political prisoners who had remained non-violent and conceded the right to make salt for consumption as also the right to peaceful picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops; the Congress suspended the Civil Disobedience Movement and agreed to take part in the Second Round Table Conference. Many of the Congress leaders, particularly the younger, left wing section, were opposed to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, for the government had not accepted even one of the major nationalist demands. It had not agreed even to the demand that the death sentence on Bhagat Singh and his two comrades be commuted to life imprisonment. But Gandhiji was convinced that Lord Irwin and the British were sincere in their desire to negotiate on Indian demands. His concept of satyagraha included the need to give the opponent every chance to show a change of heart. His strategy was based on the understanding that a mass movement must necessarily be of short duration and could not go on for ever, for the people’s capacity to sacrifice was not endless. Consequently, a phase of extra- legal mass struggle must be followed by a more passive phase when political struggle was carried on within the four walls of the law. Gandhiji had moreover negotiated with the Viceroy on equal terms and, thus, at one stroke enhanced the prestige of the Congress as the equal of the government. He prevailed upon the Karachi session of the Congress to approve the agreement.
Gandhiji went to England in September 1931 to attend the Second Round Table Conference. But in spite of his powerful advocacy, the British government refused to concede the basic nationalist demand for freedom on the basis of the immediate grant of Dominion Status.
In the meanwhile, peasant unrest had developed in several parts of the country as peasants found that the fall in prices of agricultural products because of world depression had made the burden of land revenue and rent unbearable. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress agitated for reduction of rent and prevention of eviction of tenants. In December 1931, the Congress started a no-rent, no-tax, campaign. The government’s response was to arrest Jawaharlal Nehru on 26 December. In the North-West Frontier Province the Khudai Khidmatgars were leading a peasant movement against the government’s land revenue policy. On 24 December, their leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was arrested. Peasant struggles were also developing in Bihar, Andhra, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Punjab. On his return to India, Gandhiji had no choice but to resume the Civil Disobedience Movement.
The government, now headed by the new Viceroy Lord Willingdon, who believed that a major error had been made in signing a truce with the Congress, was this time fully determined and prepared to crush the Congress. In fact, the bureaucracy in India had never relented. Just after the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, a crowd had been fired upon in East Godavari, in Andhra, and four persons were killed simply because the people had put up Gandhi’s portrait. On 4 January 1932, Gandhiji and other leaders of the Congress were again arrested and the Congress declared illegal. The normal working of laws was suspended and the administration carried on through special ordinances. The police indulged in naked terror and committed innumerable atrocities on the freedom fighters. Over a lakh of satyagrahis were arrested; the lands, houses and other property of thousands was confiscated. Nationalist literature was banned while the nationalist newspapers were again placed under censorship.
Government repression succeeded in the end, helped as it was by the differences among Indian leaders on communal and other questions. The Civil Disobedience Movement gradually waned. The Congress officially suspended the movement in May 1933 and withdrew it in May 1934. Gandhiji once again withdrew from active politics. Once again many political activists felt despair. As early as 1933, Subhas Bose and Vithalbhai Patel had declared that “the Mahatma as a political leader has failed.” Willingdon, the Viceroy, had also declared: “The Congress is in a definitely less favourable position than in 1930, and has lost its hold on the public.” But in reality this was not so. True, the movement had not succeeded in winning freedom, but it had succeeded in further politicising the people, and in further deepening the social roots of the freedom struggle. As H.N. Brailsford, the British journalist, put it: as a result of the recent struggle Indians “had freed their own minds, they had won independence in their hearts.” A true measure of the real outcome, the real impact, of the Civil Disobedience Movement was the heroes’ welcome given to political prisoners on their release in 1934.
Nationalist Politics, 1935–1939
The Government of India Act, 1935
While the Congress was in the thick of battle, the Third Round Table Conference met in London in November 1932, once again without the leaders of the Congress. Its discussions eventually led to the passing of the Government of India Act of 1935. The Act provided for the establishment of an All India Federation and a new system of government for the provinces on the basis of provincial autonomy. The federation was to be based on a union of the provinces of British India and the princely states. There was to be a bicameral federal legislature in which the states were given disproportionate weightage. Moreover, the representatives of the states were not to be elected by the people, but appointed directly by the rulers. Only 14 per cent of the total population in British India was given the right to vote. Even this legislature, in which the princes were once again to be used to check and counter the nationalist elements, was denied any real power. Defence and foreign affairs remained outside its control, while the Governor-General retained special control over the other subjects. The Governor-General and the Governors were to be appointed by the British government and were to be responsible to it. In the provinces, local power was increased. Ministers responsible to the provincial assemblies were to control all departments of provincial administration. But the Governors were given special powers. They could veto legislative action and legislate on their own. Moreover, they retained full control over the civil service and the police. The Act could not satisfy the nationalist aspiration for both political and economic power continued to be concentrated in the hands of the British government. Foreign rule was to continue as before; only a few popularly elected ministers were to be added to the structure of British administration in India. The Congress condemned the Act as “totally disappointing”.
The federal part of the Act was never introduced but the provincial part was soon put into operation. Bitterly opposed to the Act though the Congress was, it decided to contest the elections under the new Act of 193 5, though with the declared aim of showing how unpopular the Act was. The whirlwind election campaign of the Congress met with massive popular response, even though Gandhiji did not address a single election meeting. The elections, held in February 1937, conclusively demonstrated that a large majority of Indian people supported the Congress which swept the polls in most of the provinces. Congress ministries were formed in July 1937 in seven out of eleven provinces. Later, Congress formed coalition governments in two others. Only Bengal and Punjab had non-Congress ministries. Punjab was ruled by the Unionist Party and Bengal by a coalition of the Krishak Praja Party and the Muslim League.
The Congress Ministries
The Congress ministries could obviously not change the basically imperialist character of British administration in India and they failed to introduce a radical era. But they did try to improve the condition of the people within the narrow limits of the powers given to them under the Act of 1935. The Congress ministers reduced their own salaries drastically to Rs 500 per month. Most of them travelled second or third class on the railways. They set up new standards of honesty and public service. They undertook positive measures in several fields. They promoted civil liberties, repealed restrictions on the press and radical organisations, permitted trade unions and kjsan (peasant) organisations to function and grow, curbed the powers of the police and released political prisoners including a large number of revolutionary terrorists. They passed agrarian legislation dealing with tenancy rights, security of tenure, rent reduction and relief, and protection to the peasant-debtors. Trade unions felt freer and were able to win wage increases for workers. The Congress governments also introduced prohibition in selected areas, undertook Harijan uplift and paid greater attention to primary, higher and technical education and public health. Support was given to khadi and other village industries. Modern industries too were encouraged. One of the major achievements of the Congress ministries was their firm handling of communal riots. The largest gain was psychological. People felt as if they were breathing the air of victory and self-government, for was it not a great achievement that men who were in prison till the other day were now ruling in the secretariat?
The period between 1935 and 1939 witnessed several other important political developments which, in a way, marked a new turn in the nationalist movement and the Congress.
Growth of Socialist Ideas
The 1930s witnessed the rapid growth of socialist ideas within and outside the Congress. In 1929 there was a great economic slump or depression in the United States which gradually spread to the rest of the world. Everywhere in the capitalist countries there was a steep decline in production and foreign trade, resulting in economic distress and large-scale unemployment. At one time, the number of unemployed was 3 million in Britain, 6 million in Germany and 12 million in the United States. On the other hand, the economic situation in the Soviet Union was just the opposite. Not only was there no slump, but the years between 1929 and 1936 witnessed the successful completion of the first two Five-Year Plans which pushed up the Soviet industrial production by more than four times. The world depression, thus, brought the capitalist system into disrepute and drew attention towards Marxism, socialism and economic planning. Consequently, socialist ideas began to attract more and more people, especially the young, the workers and the peasants.
From its early days, the national movement had adopted a pro-poor orientation. This orientation was immensely strengthened with the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the coming of Gandhiji on the political stage and the growth of powerful left wing groups during the 1920s and 1930s. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who played the most important part in popularising the vision of a socialist India both within the national movement and in the country at large. Within the Congress the left wing tendency found reflection in the election of Jawaharlal Nehru as president for 1929, 1936 and 1937 and of Subhas Chandra Bose for 1938 and 1939. Nehru argued that political freedom must mean the economic emancipation of the masses, especially of the toiling peasants from feudal exploitation.
In his presidential address to the Lucknow Congress in 1936, Nehru urged the Congress to accept socialism as its goal and to bring itself closer to the peasantry and the working class. This was also, he felt, the best way of weaning away the Muslim masses from the influence of their reactionary communal leaders. He said:
I am convinced that the only key to the solution of the world’s problems and of India’s problems lies in socialism, and, when I use this word, I do so not in a vague humanitarian way but in the scientific, economic sense. … That involves vast and revolutionary changes in our political and social structure, the ending of vested interests in land and industry, as well as the feudal and autocratic Indian states system. That means the ending of private property, except in a restricted sense, and the replacement of the present profit system by a higher ideal of cooperative service. It means ultimately a change in our instincts and habits and desires. In short, it means a new civilisation, radically different from the present capitalist order.
The growth of the radical forces in the country was soon reflected in the programme and policies of the Congress. A major point of departure was the resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Policy passed by the Karachi session of the Congress on the urging of Jawaharlal Nehru. The resolution declared: “In order to end the exploitation of the masses, political freedom must include real economic freedom of the starving millions.” The resolution guaranteed the basic civil rights of the people, equality before law irrespective of caste, creed or sex, elections on the basis of universal adult franchise, and free and compulsory primary education. It promised substantial reduction in rent and revenue, exemption from rent in case of uneconomic holdings and relief of agricultural indebtedness and control of moneylending; better conditions for workers including a living wage, limited hours of work and protection of women workers; the right to organise and form unions by workers and peasants; and state ownership or control of key industries, mines and means of transport.
Radicalism in the Congress was further reflected in the Faizpur Congress resolutions and the Election Manifesto of 1936 which promised radical transformation of the agrarian system, substantial reduction in rent and revenue, scaling down of rural debts and provision of cheap credit, abolition of feudal levies, security of tenure for tenants, a living wage for agricultural labourers, and the right to form trade unions and peasant unions and the right to strike. In 1945 the Congress Working Committee adopted a resolution recommending abolition of landlordism.
During 1938, when Subhas Chandra Bose was its president, the Congress committed itself to economic planning and set up a National Planning Committee under the Chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru and other leftists and Gandhi also argued for the public sector in large-scale industries as a means of preventing concentration of wealth in a few hands. In fact, a major development of the 1930s was the increasing acceptance of radical economic policies by Gandhiji. In 1933, he agreed with Nehru that “without a material revision of vested interests the condition of the masses can never be improved.” He also accepted the principle of land to the tiller. He declared in 1942 that “the land belongs to those who will work on it and to no one else.”
Outside the Congress, the socialist tendency led to the growth of the Communist Party after 1935 under the leadership of PC. Joshi and the foundation of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934 under the leadership of Acharya Narendra Dev and Jai Prakash Narayan. In 1939, Subhas Chandra Bose had been re-elected president of the Congress even though Gandhiji had opposed him. But the opposition of Gandhiji and his supporters in the Congress Working Committee compelled Bose to resign from the presidentship of the Congress in April 1939. He and many of his left wing followers now founded the Forward Bloc. By 1939, within the Congress the left was able to command influence over one-third votes on important issues. Moreover, socialism became the accepted creed of most of the politicised youth of India during the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930s also witnessed the foundation of the All India Students Federation and the All India Progressive Writers Association.
The Peasants’ and Workers’ Movements
The 1930s witnessed the nation-wide awakening and organisation of the peasants and workers in India. The two nationalist mass movements of 1920-22 and 1930-34 had politicised the peasants and workers on a large scale. The economic depression that hit India and the world after 1929 also worsened the conditions of the peasants and workers in India. The prices of agricultural products dropped by over 50 per cent by the end of 1932. Employer tried to reduce wages. The peasants all over the country began to demand land reforms, reduction of land revenue and rent, and relief from indebtedness. Workers in factories and plantations increasingly demanded better conditions of work and recognition of their trade union rights.
The Civil Disobedience Movement and the rise of the left parties and groups produced a new generation of political workers who devoted themselves to the organisation of peasants and workers. Consequently, there was rapid growth of trade unions in the cities and kisan sabhas (peasants’ unions) all over the country, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab. The first all- India peasant organisation, the All-India Kisan Sabha, was formed in 1936 under the presidentship of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati.
Congress and World Affairs
The third major development of the period 1935-9 was the increasing interest the Congress took in world affairs. The Congress had from its inception in 1885 opposed the use of the Indian army and of India’s resources to serve British interests in Africa and Asia. It had gradually developed a foreign policy based on opposition to the spread of imperialism. In February 1927, Jawaharlal Nehru on behalf of the National Congress attended the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities at Brussels organised by political exiles and revolutionaries from the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America suffering from economic or political imperialism. The Congress was called to coordinate and plan their common struggle against imperialism. Many left wing intellectuals and political leaders of Europe also joined the Congress. In his address to the Congress, Nehru said:
We realise that there is much in common in the struggle which various subject and semi-subject and oppressed peoples are carrying on today. Their opponents are often the same, although they sometimes appear in different guises and the means employed for their subjection are often similar.
Nehru was elected to the Executive Council of the League Against Imperialism that was born at this Congress. In 1927, the Madras session of the National Congress warned the government that the people of India would not support Britain in any war undertaken to further its imperialist aims.
In the 1930s the Congress took a firm stand against imperialism in any part of the world and supported national movements in Asia and Africa. It condemned fascism which had arisen at the time in Italy, Germany and Japan as the most extreme form of imperialism and racialism and gave full support to the people of Ethiopia, Spain, Czechoslovakia and China in their fight against aggression by the fascist powers. In 1937, when Japan launched an attack on China, the National Congress passed a resolution calling upon the Indian people “to refrain from the use of Japanese goods as a mark of their sympathy with the people of China.” And in 1938, it sent a medical mission, headed by Dr M. Atal, to work with the Chinese armed forces.
The National Congress fully recognised that the future of India was closely interlinked with the coming struggle between fascism and the forces of freedom, socialism and democracy. The emerging Congress approach to world problems and the awareness of India’s position in the world were clearly enunciated in Jawaharlal Nehru’s presidential address to the Lucknow Congress in 1936:
Our struggle was but part of a far wider struggle for freedom, and the forces that moved us were moving millions of people all over the world and driving them into action. Capitalism, in its difficulties, took to fascism. … It became, even in some of its homelands, what its imperialist counterpart had long been in the subject colonial countries. Fascism and imperialism thus stood out as the two faces of the now decaying capitalism. … Socialism in the West and the rising nationalism of the Eastern and other dependent countries opposed this combination of fascism and imperialism.
While stressing the Congress opposition to any participation of the Indian government in a war between imperialist powers, he offered full cooperation “to the progressive forces of the world, to those who stood for freedom and the breaking of political and social bonds,” for “in their struggle against imperialism and fascist reaction, we realise that our struggle is a common one.”
People’s Struggle In The Princely States
The fourth major development during this period was the spread of the national movement to the princely states. Appalling economic, political and social conditions prevailed in most of them. Peasants were oppressed, land revenue and taxation were excessive and unbearable, education was retarded, health and other social services were extremely backward, and freedom of the press and other civil rights hardly existed. The bulk of the state revenues were spent on the luxuries of the princes. In several states serfdom, slavery and forced labour flourished. Throughout history, a corrupt and decadent ruler was checked to some extent by the challenge of internal revolt or external aggression. British rule freed the princes of both these dangers, and they felt free to indulge in gross misgovernment.
Moreover, the British authorities began to use the princes to prevent the growth of national unity and to counter the rising national movement. The princes in turn depended for their self-preservation from popular revolt on the protection by the British power and adopted a hostile attitude to the national movement. In 1921, the Chamber of Princes was created to enable the princes to meet and discuss under British guidance matters of common interest. In the Government of India Act of 1935, the proposed federal structure was so planned as to check the forces of nationalism. It was provided that the princes would get two-fifth of the seats in the Upper House and one-third of the seats in the Lower House.
People of many of the princely states now began to organise movements for democratic rights and popular governments. The All- India States People’s Conference had already been founded in December 1927 to coordinate political activities in the different states. The Civil Disobedience Movement produced a deep impact on the minds of the people of these states and stirred them into political activity. Popular struggles were waged in many of the states, particularly in Rajkot, Jaipur, Kashmir, Hyderabad and Travancore. The princes met these struggles with violent repression. Some of them also took recourse to communalism. The Nizam of Hyderabad declared that the popular agitation was anti-Muslim; the Maharaja of Kashmir branded it as anti-Hindu; while the Maharaja of Travancore claimed that Christians were behind the popular agitation.
The National Congress supported the States People’s struggle and urged the princes to introduce democratic representative government and to grant fundamental civil rights. In 1938, when the Congress defined its goal of independence it included the independence of the princely states. Next year, at the Tripuri session, it decided to take a more active part in the States People’s movements. As if to emphasise the common national aims of the political struggles in British India and in the states, Jawaharlal Nehru became the President of the All- India States People’s Conference in 1939. The States People’s movement awakened national consciousness among the people of the states. It also spread a new consciousness of unity all over India.
Growth of Communalism
The fifth important development was the growth of communalism. Once again the elections for the legislative assemblies, organised on the basis of restricted franchise and separate electorates, had produced separatist sentiments. Moreover, the Congress failed to win many seats reserved for the minorities—it won 26 out of482 seats reserved for Muslims and even out of these 26 seats 15 were won in the North-West Frontier Provinces—though the Muslim League too did not capture many of these seats. The Hindu Mahasabha also failed miserably. Moreover, the landlord and moneylender parties fared badly in the elections. Seeing that the Congress had adopted a radical agrarian programme and the peasant movements were growing, landlords and moneylenders began to shift their support to the communal parties. They found that an open defence of their interests was no longer possible in the era of mass politics. It was now that the communal parties began to gather strength. The Muslim League, led by Jinnah, turned to bitter opposition to the Congress. It began to spread the cry that the Muslim minority was in danger of being engulfed by the Hindu majority. It propagated the unscientific and unhistorical theory that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations which could, therefore, never live together. In 1940, the Muslim League passed a resolution demanding partition of the country and the creation of a state to be called Pakistan after independence.
The Muslim League propaganda gained by the existence of such communal bodies among the Hindus as the Hindu Mahasabha. The Hindu communalists echoed the Muslim communalists by declaring that the Hindus were a distinct nation and that India was the land of the Hindus. Thus they too accepted the two-nation theory. They actively opposed the policy of giving adequate safeguards to the minorities so as to remove their fears of domination by the majority. In one respect, Hindu communalism had even less justification. In every country, the religious or linguistic or national minorities have, because of their numerical position, felt at one time or the other that their social and cultural interests might suffer. But when the majority has by word and deed given proof that these fears are groundless the fears of the minorities have disappeared. On the other hand, if a section of the people belonging to the majority becomes communal or sectional and starts talking and working against the minorities, the minorities tend to feel unsafe. Communal or sectional leadership of the minorities is then strengthened. For example, during the 1930s the Muslim League was strong only in areas where the Muslims were in a minority. On the other hand, in such areas as the North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, the Sindh and Bengal where the Muslims were in a majority and, therefore, felt relatively securer, the Muslim League remained weak. Interestingly enough, the communal groups—Hindu as well as Muslim—did not hesitate to join hands against the Congress. In the North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, Sindh and Bengal, the Hindu communalists helped the Muslim League and other communal groups to form ministries which opposed the Congress. Another characteristic that the various communal groups shared was their tendency to adopt pro-government political attitudes. It is to be noted that none of the communal groups and parties, which talked of Hindu and Muslim nationalism, took active part in the struggle against foreign rule. They saw people belonging to other religions and the nationalist leaders as their real enemies.
The communal groups and parties also shied away from the social and economic demands of the common people which, as we have seen above, were being increasingly taken up by the nationalist movement. In this respect, they increasingly came to represent the upper- class vested interests. Jawaharlal Nehru noted this as early as 1933:
The bulwark of communalism today is political reaction and so we find that communal leaders inevitably tend to become reactionaries in political and economic matters. Groups of upper-class people try to cover up their own class interests by making it appear that they stand for the communal demands of religious minorities or majorities. A critical examination of the various communal demands put forward on behalf of Hindus, Muslims or others reveals that they have nothing to do with the masses.
The national movement firmly opposed the communal forces, for its commitment to secularism was always deep and total. Yet it was not able to fully counter the communal challenge. In the end, communalism succeeded in partitioning the country. How is this failure to be explained? One answer that is often given is that the nationalist leaders did not make enough efforts to negotiate with and conciliate the communal leaders.
Our view is the very opposite. From the beginning, the nationalist leaders relied too much on negotiations with the communal leaders. But it was not possible to conciliate or appease communalism. Furthermore, efforts to appease one communalism invariably led to the growth of other communalisms in the form of a backlash. Between 1937 and 1939 the Congress leaders repeatedly met Jinnah to conciliate him. But Jinnah would not make any concrete demands. Instead, he put forward the impossible demand that he would negotiate with the Congress only if the Congress first accepted that it was a Hindu party and represented only the Hindus. The Congress could not possibly have accepted this demand, for it meant giving up its basic secular nationalist character. The fact is that the more communalism was conciliated the more extreme it became.
What was required was not further appeasement but an all-out ideological political struggle against communalism. What was required was a massive campaign against communalism, a massive campaign of the kind that was carried on against colonial ideology since the 1880s. But the nationalists did not do so, except sporadically. However, the successes of secular nationalism should not be underrated. Despite the partition riots and the resurgence of communal forces during 1946-47, India did succeed after independence in framing a secular constitution and in building a basically secular polity and society. Hindu communalism did make deep inroads in society and even in the ranks of the nationalists. It remained a minority force among the Hindus. While many Muslims were swept away by the tide of religious fanaticism and communalism during 1946-47, others stood like a rock against communalism. The names of Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the firebrand socialist Yusuf Meherali, S.A. Brelvi the fearless journalist, the historians Mohammed Habib and K.M. Ashraf, Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sardar Jaafri, Sahir Ludhianwi and Kaifi Azmi, the stormy petrels of Urdu poetry, and Maulana Madani readily come to mind.
National Movement During The Second World War
The Second World War broke out in September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in pursuance of Hitler’s scheme for German expansion. Earlier he had occupied Austria in March 1938 and Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Britain and France, which had tried their best to placate Hitler, were forced to go to Poland’s aid. The Government of India immediately joined the war without consulting the National Congress or the elected members of the Central Legislature. The National Congress was in full sympathy with the victims of fascist aggression. It was willing to help the forces of democracy in their struggle against fascism. But, the Congress leaders asked, how was it possible for an enslaved nation to aid others in their fight for freedom? They therefore demanded that India must be declared free—or at least effective power put in Indian hands— before it could actively participate in the War. The British government refused to accept this demand and tried to pit the religious minorities and princes against the Congress. The Congress, therefore, asked its ministries to resign. In October 1940, Gandhi gave the call for a limited satyagraha by a few selected individuals. The satyagraha was kept limited so as not to embarass Britain’s war effort by a mass upheaval in India. The aims of this movement were explained as follows by Gandhi in a letter to the Viceroy:
The Congress is as much opposed to victory for Nazism as any Britisher can be. But their objection cannot be carried to the extent of their participation in the war. And since you and the Secretary of State for India have declared that the whole of India is voluntarily helping the war effort, it becomes necessary to make clear that the vast majority of the people of India are not interested in it. They make no distinction between Nazism and the double autocracy that rules India.
Vinoba Bhave was the first to offer satyagraha. By 15 May 1941, more than 25,000 satyagrahis had been jailed. Two major changes in world politics occurred during 1941. Having occupied Poland, Belgium, Holland, Norway and France in the west as well as most of eastern Europe, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. On 7 December Japan launched a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour and joined the war on the side of Germany and Italy. It quickly overran the Philippines, Indo-China, Indonesia, Malaya and Burma. It occupied Rangoon in March 1942. This brought the War to India’s door-step. The recently released Congress leaders denounced Japanese aggression and once again offered to fully cooperate in the defence of India and the Allied cause if Britain transferred the substance of power to India immediately and promised complete independence after the War.
The British government now desperately wanted the active co-operation of Indians in the war effort. To secure this cooperation it sent to India in March 1942 a mission headed by a Cabinet Minister Sir Stafford Cripps, who had earlier been a radical member of the Labour Party and a strong supporter of the Indian national movement. Even though Cripps declared that the aim of British policy in India was “the earliest possible realisation of self-government in India,” detailed negotiations between him and the Congress leaders broke down. The British government refused to accept the Congress demand for the immediate transfer of effective power to Indians. On the other hand, the Indian leaders could not be satisfied by mere promises for the future while the Viceroy retained his autocratic powers in the present. They were anxious to cooperate in the war effort, especially as the Japanese army endangered Indian territory. But they could do so, they felt, only when a national government was formed in the country.
The failure of the Cripps Mission embittered the people of India. While they still fully sympathised with the anti-fascist forces, they felt that the existing political situation in the country had become intolerable. Their discontent was further fuelled by war-time shortages and rising prices. The period from April to August 1942 was one of daily heightening tension, with Gandhiji becoming more and more militant as Japanese forces moved towards India and the spectre of Japanese conquest began to haunt the people and their leaders. The Congress now decided to take active steps to compel the British to accept the Indian demand for independence. The All India Congress Committee met at Bombay on 8 August 1942. It passed the famous ‘Quit India’ Resolution and proposed the starting of a non-violent mass struggle under Gandhi’s leadership to achieve this aim. The resolution declared:
… the immediate ending of British rule in India is an urgent necessity, both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of the United Nations. … India, the classic land of modern imperialism, has become the crux of the question, for by the freedom of India will Britain and the United Nations be judged, and the peoples of Asia and Africa be filled with hope and enthusiasm. The ending of British rule in this country is thus a vital and immediate issue on which depends the future of the war and the success of freedom and democracy. A free India will assure this success by throwing all her great resources in the struggle for freedom and against the aggression of Nazism, Fascism and Imperialism.
Addressing the Congress delegates on the night of 8 August, Gandhi said:
I, therefore, want freedom immediately, this very night, before dawn, if it can be had…. Fraud and untruth today are stalking the world. … You may take it from me that I am not going to strike a bargain with the Viceroy for ministries and the like. I am not going to be satisfied with anything short of complete freedom. … Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is: “Do or Die”. We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. …
But before the Congress could start a movement, the government struck hard. Early in the morning of 9 August, Gandhi and other Congress leaders were arrested and taken to unknown destinations, and the Congress was once again declared illegal.
The news of these arrests left the country aghast, and a spontaneous movement of protest arose everywhere, giving expression to the pent up anger of the people. Left leaderless and without any organisation, the people reacted in any manner they could. All over the country there were hartals, strikes in factories, schools and colleges, and demonstrations which were lathi-charged and fired upon. Angered by repeated firings and repression, in many places the people took to violent action. They attacked the symbols of British authority—the police stations, post offices, railway stations, etc. They cut telegraph and telephone wires and railway lines, and burnt government buildings. Madras and Bengal were the most affected in this respect. In many places the rebels seized temporary control over towns, cities and villages. British authority disappeared in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. In some areas, such as Ballia in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Tamluk in Midnapore district of Bengal and in Satara district of Bombay, the revolutionaries set up ‘parallel governments’. In general, the students, workers and peasants provided the backbone of the ‘revolt’ while the upper classes and the bureaucracy remained loyal to the government.
The government on its part went all out to crush the 1942 movement. Its repression knew no bounds. The press was completely muzzled. The demonstrating crowds were machine-gunned and even bombed from the air. Prisoners were tortured. The police and secret police reigned supreme. The military took over many towns and cities. Over 10,000 people died in police and military firings. Rebellious villages had to pay huge sums as punitive fines and the villagers had to undergo mass floggings. India had not witnessed such intense repression since the Revolt of 1857.
In the end the government succeeded in crushing the movement. The Revolt of 1942, as it has been termed, was in fact short-lived. Its importance lay in the fact that it demonstrated the depth that nationalist feeling had reached in the country and the great capacity for struggle and sacrifice that the people had developed. It was evident that the British would no longer find it possible to rule India against the wishes of the people.
After the suppression of the Revolt of 1942, there was hardly any political activity inside the country till the War ended in 1945. The established leaders of the national movement were in jail, and no new leaders arose to take their place or to give a new lead to the country. In 1943, Bengal was plunged into the worst famine in recent history. Within a few months, over three million people died of starvation. There was deep anger among the people for the government could have prevented the famine from taking such a heavy toll of life. This anger, however, found little political expression.
The national movement, however, found a new expression outside the country’s frontiers. Subhas Chandra Bose had escaped from India in March 1941 to go to the Soviet Union for help. But when the Soviet Union joined the allies in June 1941, he went to Germany. In February 1943 he left for Japan to organise an armed struggle against British rule with Japanese help. In Singapore he formed the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army or INA for short) to conduct a military campaign for the liberation of India. He was assisted by Rash Behari Bose, an old terrorist revolutionary.
Before the arrival of Subhas Bose, steps towards the organisation of the INA had been taken by General Mohan Singh (who had been a Captain in the British-Indian army). The INA was joined in large numbers by Indian residents in Southeast Asia and by Indian soldiers and officers captured by the Japanese forces in Malaya, Singapore and Burma. Subhas Bose, who was now called ‘Netaji’ by the soldiers of the INA, gave his followers the battle cry of ‘Jai Hind’. The INA joined the Japanese army in its march on India from Burma. Inspired by the aim of freeing their homeland, the soldiers and officers of the INA hoped to enter India as its liberators with Subhas Bose at the head of the Provisional Government of Free India.
With the collapse of Japan in the War during 1944-5, the INA too met defeat and Subhas Bose was killed in an aeroplane accident on his way to Tokyo. Even though his strategy of winning freedom in cooperation with the fascist powers was criticised at the time by most Indian nationalists, by organising the INA he set an inspiring example of patriotism before the Indian people and the Indian army. He was hailed as Netaji by the entire country.
With the end of the War in Europe in April 1945, India’s struggle for freedom entered a new phase. The Revolt of 1942 and the INA had revealed the heroism and determination of the Indian people. With the release of the national leaders from jail, the people began to look forward to another, perhaps the final, struggle for freedom.
The new struggle took the form of a massive movement against the trial of the soldiers and officers of the INA. The government decided to put on trial in the Red Fort at Delhi Shah Nawaz Khan, Gurdial Singh Dhillon and Prem Sehgal, officers of the INA, who had earlier been officers in the British-Indian army. They were accused of having broken the oath of loyalty to the British Crown and thus of having become ‘traitors’. On the other hand, the people welcomed them as national heroes. Huge popular demonstrations demanding their release were held all over the country. The entire country now seethed with excitement and confidence that this time the struggle would be won. They would not let these heroes be punished. And the British government was this time in no position to ignore Indian opinion. Even though the Court Martial held the INA prisoners guilty, the government felt it expedient to set them free.
The changed attitude of the British government is explained by several factors.
First, the War had changed the balance of power in the world. Not Britain, but the United States of America and the Soviet Union emerged from the war as the big powers. Both supported India’s demand for freedom.
Second, even though Britain was on the winning side in the War, its economic and military power was shattered. It would take Britain years to rehabilitate itself Moreover, there was a change of government in Britain. The Conservatives were replaced by the Labour Party, many of whose members supported the Congress demands. The British soldiers were weary of war. Having fought and shed their blood for nearly six years, they had no desire to spend many more years away from home in India suppressing the Indian people’s struggle for freedom.
Third, the British-Indian government could not any longer rely on the Indian personnel of its civil administration and armed forces to suppress the national movement. The INA had shown that patriotic ideas had entered the ranks of the professional Indian army, the chief instrument of British rule in India. Another straw in the wind was the famous revolt of the Indian naval ratings at Bombay in February 1946. The ratings had fought a seven-hour battle with the army and navy and had surrendered only when asked to do so by the national leaders. Naval ratings in many other parts had gone on sympathetic strike. Moreover, there were also widespread strikes in the Royal Indian Air Force. The Indian Signal Corps at Jabalpur also went on strike. The other two major instruments of British rule, the police and the bureaucracy, were also showing signs of nationalist leanings. They could no longer be safely used to suppress the national movement. For example, the police force in Bihar and Delhi went on strike.
Fourth, and above all, the confident and determined mood of the Indian people was by now obvious. They would no longer tolerate the humiliation of foreign rule. They would no longer rest till freedom was won. There was the Naval Mutiny and the struggle for the release of INA prisoners. In addition, there were during 1945-6 numerous agitations, strikes, hartals and demonstrations all over the country, even in many princely states such as Hyderabad, Travancore and Kashmir. For example, in November 1945, lakhs of people demonstrated in the streets in Calcutta to demand the release of the INA prisoners. For three days there was virtually no government authority left in the city. Again, on 12 February 1946, there was another mass demonstration in the city to demand the release of Abdur Rashid, one of the INA prisoners. On 22 February, Bombay observed a complete hartal and general strike in factories and offices in sympathy with the naval ratings in revolt. The army was called in to suppress the popular upsurge. Over 250 people were shot dead on the streets in 48 hours.
There was also large-scale labour unrest all over the country. There was hardly an industry in which strikes did not occur. In July 1946, there was an all-strike by the postal and telegraph workers. Railway workers in South India went on strike in August 1946. Peasant movements acquired a fresh thrust after 1945 as freedom approached. The most militant of the post-war struggles was the Tebhaga struggle by the share-croppers of Bengal who declared that they would pay not one-half but one-third of the crop to the landlords. Struggles for land and against high rents also took place in Hyderabad, Malabar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. Students in schools and colleges took a leading part in organising strikes, hartals and demonstrations. Many of the princely states—Hyderabad, Travancore, Kashmir and Patiala among others—were enveloped by popular upsurges and revolts. Elections to provincial assemblies, held in early 1946, provided another major political development. The Congress won an overwhelming majority of general seats, while the Muslim League did the same for seats reserved for Muslims.
The British government, therefore, sent in March 1946 a Cabinet Mission to India to negotiate with the Indian leaders the terms for the transfer of power to Indians. The Cabinet Mission proposed a two-tiered federal plan which was expected to maintain national unity while conceding the largest measure of regional autonomy. There was to be a federation of the provinces and the states, with the federal centre controlling only defence, foreign affairs and communications. At the same time, individual provinces could form regional unions to which they could surrender by mutual agreement some of their powers. Both the National Congress and the Muslim League accepted this plan. But the two could not agree on the plan for an interim government which would convene a constituent assembly to frame a constitution for the free, federal India. The two also put differing interpretations on the Cabinet Mission scheme to which they had agreed earlier. In the end, in September 1946, an Interim Cabinet, headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, was formed by the Congress. The Muslim League joined the Cabinet in October after some hesitation; but it decided to boycott the constituent assembly. On 20 February 1947, Clement Attlee, British Premier, declared that the British would quit India by June 1948.
But the elation of coming independence was marred by the large- scale communal riots during and after August 1946. The Hindu and Muslim communalists blamed each other for starting the heinous killings and competed with each other in cruelty. Mahatma Gandhi, engulfed in gloom at this total disregard of elementary humanity and seeing truth and non-violence cast to the winds, toured East Bengal and Bihar on foot to check the riots. Many other Hindus and Muslims laid down their lives in the effort to extinguish the fire of communalism. But the seeds had been sown too deep by the communal elements, aided and abetted by the alien government. Gandhi and other nationalists fought vainly against communal prejudices and passions.
Finally, Lord Mountbatten, who had come to India as Viceroy in March 1947, worked out a compromise after long discussions with the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League: the country was to be free but not united. India was to be partitioned and a new state of Pakistan was to be created along with a free India. The nationalist leaders agreed to the partition of India in order to avoid the large- scale blood-bath and communal riots threatened by the separatists. But they did not accept the two-nation theory. They did not agree to hand over one-third of the country to the Muslim League as the latter wanted and as the proportion of Muslims in the Indian population would have indicated. They agreed to the separation of only those areas where the influence of the Muslim League was predominant. Thus, Punjab, Bengal and Assam were to be partitioned. The Muslim League was to get ‘a moth-eaten’ Pakistan. In the North-West Frontier Province, and the Sylhet district of Assam where the influence of the League was doubtful, a plebiscite was to be held. In other words the country was to be partitioned but not on the basis of Hinduism and Islam.
The Indian nationalists accepted partition not because there were two nations in India—a Hindu nation and a Muslim nation—but because the historical development of communalism, both Hindu and Muslim, over the past 70 years or so had created a situation where the alternative to partition was mass killing of lakhs of innocent people in senseless and barbaric communal riots. If these riots had been confined to one section of the country, the Congress leaders could have tried to curb them and taken a strong stand against partition. But unfortunately the fratricidal riots were taking place everywhere and actively involved both Hindus and Muslims. On top of it all, the country was still ruled by foreigners who did little to check the riots. On the other hand, the foreign government rather encouraged these riots by their divisive policies, perhaps hoping to play the two newly independent states against each other. Referring to communalism Jawaharlal Nehru had written in 1948 in his The Discovery of India. It is our fault, of course, and we must suffer for our failings. But I cannot excuse or forgive the British authorities for the deliberate part they have played in creating disruption in India. All other injuries will pass, but this will continue to plague us for a much longer period. Even Jinnah was in the end forced to revise his two-nation theory lying at the heart of communalism. When asked by Muslims who were staying on in India what they should do, he asked them to become loyal citizens of India. And he told the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” He was, in vain, trying to put back in the bottle the genie he had released to practise communal politics.
The announcement that India and Pakistan would be free was made on 3 June 1947. The princely states were given the choice of joining either of the new states. Under the pressure of the popular States People’s movements and guided by the masterful diplomacy of Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, most of them acceded to India. The Nawab of Junagadh, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maharaja – of Jammu and Kashmir held back for some time. The Nawab of Junagadh, a small state on the coast of Kathiawar, announced accession to Pakistan even though the people of the state desired to join India. In the end, Indian troops occupied the state and a plebiscite was held which went in favour of joining India. The Nizam of Hyderabad made an attempt to claim an independent status but was forced to accede in 1948 after an internal revolt had broken out in its Telengana area and after Indian troops had marched into Hyderabad. The Maharaja of Kashmir also delayed accession to India or Pakistan even though the popular forces led by the National Conference wanted accession to India. However, he acceded to India in October 1947 after Pathans and irregular armed forces of Pakistan invaded Kashmir.
On 15 August 1947, India celebrated with joy its first day of freedom. The sacrifices of generations of patriots and the blood of countless martyrs had borne fruit. Their dream was now a reality. In a memorable address to the Constituent Assembly on the night of 14 August, Jawaharlal Nehru, giving expression to the feeling of the people, said:
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity … We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us.
But the sense of joy, which should have been overwhelming and unlimited, was mixed with pain and sadness. The dream of Indian unity had been shattered and brother had been torn from brother; what was worse, even at the very moment of freedom a communal orgy, accompanied by indescribable brutalities, was consuming thousands of lives in both India and Pakistan. Lakhs of refugees, forced to leave the lands of their forefathers, were pouring into the two new states.
Writing of those months, Nehru wrote later:
Fear and hatred blinded our minds and all the restraints which civilisation imposes were swept away. Horror piled on horror, and sudden emptiness seized us at the brute savagery of human beings. The lights seemed all to go out; not all, for a few still flickered in the raging tempest. We sorrowed for the dead and the dying, and for those whose suffering was greater than that of death. We sorrowed even more for India, our common mother, for whose freedom we had laboured these long years.
The symbol of this tragedy at the moment of national triumph was the forlorn figure of Gandhiji—the man who had given the message of non-violence, truth, and love and courage and manliness to the Indian people, the man who symbolised all that was best in Indian culture.
He had been touring the hate-torn parts of the country, trying to bring comfort to people who were even then paying through senseless communal slaughter the price of freedom. He had come to Calcutta from the Punjab and proposed going to Noakhali. He stayed in Calcutta in a locality which had been one of the worst affected by the communal riots. He spent the Independence Day by fasting and spinning. The celebrations had hardly died down when on 30 January 1948 an assassin—a hate-filled Hindu fanatic—extinguished the light that had shone so bright in our land for over 70 years. Thus Gandhi “died a martyr to the cause of unity to which he had always been devoted.”
Earlier, in reply to a journalist on the occasion of his birthday in 1947, Gandhi had said that he no longer wished to live long and that he would “invoke the aid of the Almighty to take me away from this ‘vale of tears’ rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage, whether he dares to call himself a Muslim or Hindu or what not”.
In a way, with the achievement of freedom, the country had taken only the first step: the overthrow of foreign rule had only removed the chief obstacle in the path of national regeneration. Centuries of backwardness, prejudice, inequality and ignorance still weighed on the land and the long haul had just begun. For as Rabindranath Tagore had remarked three months before his death in 1941:
The wheels of fate will some day compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth will they leave behind them.
The freedom struggle had, however, not only overthrown colonial rule, it had also evolved a vision of what free India would be like. This vision was that of a democratic, civil libertarian and secular India built on the foundations of an independent self-reliant economy, social and economic equality, and a politically awakened and politically active people—an India which would live in peace with its neighbours and the rest of the world, basing itself on an independent foreign policy.
The first effort to give expression to this vision was the framing of the Constitution of Free India by the Constituent Assembly under the guidance of Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar. The Constitution, introduced on 26 January 1950, laid down certain basic principles and values. India was to be a secular and democratic republic with a parliamentary system based on adult franchise, that is, on the right of all adult men and women to vote. It was also to be a federation with demarcation of spheres of action between the Union government and the governments of the states forming the union. It guaranteed all Indian citizens certain fundamental rights: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assemble peaceably and to form associations, freedom to acquire and hold property. The Constitution guaranteed all citizens equality before the law and equality of opportunity in government employment. The state was not to discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth. ‘Untouchability’ was abolished and its practice in any form forbidden. All Indians were given the right to freely profess, practise and propagate any religion. At the same time, it forbade imparting of any religious instruction in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds. The Constitution also laid down certain ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ which were not enforceable in a court of law but which were to guide the state in the making of laws. These included the promotion of a social order based on social, economic and political justice in all areas of national life, prevention of concentration of wealth and means of production, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, organisation of village panchayats, right to work and education, public assistance in case of unemployment, old age and sickness, a uniform civil code throughout the country, and promotion of the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
With confidence in their capacity and their will to succeed, the people of India now set out to change the face of their country and to build a just and good society and a secular, democratic and egalitarian India.