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Rebel India

The Struggle for Effective Independence

History will say, when it records contemporary events in India, that destiny fulfilled itself with  punctual and implacable logic. The new Constitution has just come into operation, and already over the greater part of the Peninsula it is a dead letter. The nation refuses to work it. What else could one expect? The British government prepared the mind of this people to receive its gift by two years of intensive coercion. It would discuss the details of the new settlement only with hand-picked delegates of its own choosing. It marched on, even when the moderates on whom it relied disavowed its work. In short, it imposed this constitution on a protesting people. Today it reaps what it has sown.

The English press as a whole affects surprise. It had not expected that the Indian National Congress could carry six provinces, for it has always regarded this party as an extremist minority, which it contrasted with “the real India,” loyal at heart. Nor had it anticipated from the Congress, after its victory, an uncompromising attitude. These were not unreasonable mistakes. The long period of coercion, the most ruthless and efficient performance of its kind since the Mutiny, did in fact reduce this people to hopeless apathy. The Congress abandoned all its methods of pacific militancy and relapsed into constitutional correctitude. There is little doubt that Mr. Gandhi wished to work the Constitution, if that could be done without loss of self-respect. The Congress, like every big party, has among its older and wealthier adherents its fringe of office-seekers. To dispense patronage would have been a pleasant change after imprisonment and martyrdom. Idealists, moreover, could argue, plausibly enough, that office would bring the chance to enact many urgent social reforms. On such calculations the British government had relied, when it decided to ignore the criticisms that every Indian party, and not the Congress alone, levied at this constitution. These were directed mainly at the federal charters, but Sir Samuel Hoare had made the Federal Legislature proof against capture by any popular party. The provincial legislatures might be stormed, but the provinces had been granted more than a show of self-government––enough to tempt the average politician to compromise. The plan, in short, was devised with cynical sagacity.

It has failed, first of all, because the Congress scored an astonishing victory. The odds were heavily against it. The franchise, even in the provinces, though it has been widened, still excludes the mass of the poorer workers and peasants. Every minority was overrepresented on a systematic plan: property (meaning chambers of commerce and landlords) had with the Europeans its special representatives who far outnumbered those assigned to labor. Electioneering had to be conducted under restrictions that leave only a vestige of free speech and a free press. Many of the leaders of the Congress were disqualified as candidates because they had served terms of imprisonment during the period of civil disobedience. In spite of these handicaps, the Congress won an absolute majority in six provinces, emerged as the leading party in three more and did poorly only in two. It controls an immense area, stretching over the whole interior of India from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin: its hold weakens only at the western and eastern extremities. When the actual votes cast are obtainable, it is fairly certain that the Congress will be found to have a majority over British India as a whole. There are, moreover, other parties and groups that differ from its position only by some nuance of opinion.

The manifesto on which the Congress went to the country called for the total and uncompromising rejection of the new Constitution. A program of moderate social reforms (eight-hour day, compulsory elementary education and the like) was included, but the main positive proposal was the calling of a constituent assembly, based on universal suffrage, at which Indians should themselves build the framework of their future national life. An electoral victory for this platform under these conditions can have only one meaning. India lives under a constitution imposed on her against her will. It has no sanction save the tanks and bombing planes of the Imperial Power.

Several alternative courses were debated by the Congress after its victory. Its left wing, organized by the Socialist group that looks to the President, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, as its leader, was for a flat refusal to accept office. This seemed to be the logical consequence of the Manifesto. If one rejects a constitution, one does not consent to work it, submitting tamely to all its vetoes and restrictions. In six provinces the Congress has the ability to render its normal operation impossible. The Governor can of course nominate a ministry of tame moderates, but he can get his budget and other urgent legislation only by using his emergency powers of certification. “Better,” argued the left wing, “a clear situation than acquiescence in a sham of self-government. If over the greater part of India the people refuse to submit to a fraud, it will, sooner or later, drive the Empire to honest concessions.” This is the attitude of revolutionary nationalism, which means to reshape the whole social structure of India and is not deeply interested in changing the color of the official persons who preside over its subhuman poverty. 

A few proposed to accept office in order to wreck the Constitution from within. The main body, however, wished to take office. Its motives were mixed. Some had a weakness for the sweets of power, which under this constitution are not negligible. Some of the provinces are almost as big and populous as the leading states of Western Europe, and Ministers have much patronage to bestow. Others argued that if the proffered provincial autonomy be a sham, it would be wise to dissipate illusions by giving it a fair trial. But many congressmen did sincerely believe that good work could be done in the provinces (though not at the Federal Center) for social reform. Certainly on the surface the opportunity seems impressive. A Ministry of Indians, responsible to a mainly elected legislature, has charge of most of the functions of government that chiefly concern the average man in his daily life. Could it not expand the starved social services, bring health and enlightenment to neglected villages, rescue the peasant from the usurer, humanize the conditions of the industrial worker and teach the police to behave as the servants, not the masters, of the people?

This dazzling prospect fades perceptibly when one examines the Constitution in detail. Over wide areas of possible legislation the Federal Center and the provinces share concurrent jurisdiction, with the Center predominant; but the Federal Legislature is hopelessly tied to property interests. Much graver is the financial difficulty: for a great part of their revenues the provinces depend on the Federal Center; their budgets are, therefore, inelastic, and it is doubtful, given the heavy fixed charges incidental to foreign rule, whether funds can be raised to pay for social reform. In several provinces there are second chambers, based on a high property franchise, which can and doubtless will obstruct social reform. Again, one may ask whether irremovable white civil servants will loyally carry out the policy of brown Ministers. Finally, there is the Governor’s veto.

On this last obstacle the Congress concentrated its gaze. It loomed up, the dramatic embodiment of British sovereignty. These white men had the almost unlimited right, if they chose to exercise it, to frustrate the will of the brown millions. In certain cases the Constitution expressly instructs the Governor to use his veto, but a wide margin is left to his discretion. The danger is not that the veto will be used frequently and brutally; it is rather that Ministers, aware that it is always hanging over their heads, must discuss their every move with the Governor and watch his face anxiously from day to day: in short, they must consider his views as closely as those of their constituents. Facing this prospect, Mr. Gandhi thought of a compromise. In each province the leaders of the victorious party should, before taking office, seek from the Governor an undertaking that he will not use his veto so long as the Ministry acts within the Constitution. 

This was not, it seems to me, an improper request. The Governor might well have answered that he will use his veto only in cases where a proposed infringement of the Constitution obliges him to do so. Probably such an answer would have satisfied the moderate majority. It was nowhere given. Every Governor promised “sympathy,” but refused any pledge that in any way limited his right of veto. Then the inevitable happened. In all six provinces the Congress refused office, and tame Indian notables with no popular support formed Ministries that will be the Governors’ tools. It is unlikely that these six legislatures will ever meet. The Constitution is not working, and it is improbable that outside the Mohammedan northeast and northwest it ever will work. On the day that it came into force, over the greater part of the Peninsula the bazaars and factories closed their doors and silent cities went into mourning.

The struggle, then, goes on for effective independence. Indians in this Constitution have gained a new lever, but that is all they have gained. The victory cannot be swift or easy. In this new phase the contending forces will organize themselves more consciously than before on class lines. The British rulers will be driven to seek the support of the princes, the capitalists and the landlords. Into this camp the wealthy, elderly fringe of the Congress will tend to drift. It will have to draw to itself the lower middle class, if it hopes to win provincial elections––a task for which it is not well fitted. The main body of the Congress, meanwhile, hampered by Mr. Gandhi’s old-world views of morals and economics, will have to become frankly a Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, as keen on expropriating landlords of its own race as on opposing the Empire. 

This inevitable realignment of forces and classes will come only gradually and slowly, but the struggle over the Constitution is likely to speed it up. For Sir Samuel Hoare’s constructive idea, when he drafted it, was manifestly to win the Indian propertied classes for the Empire by concessions that meant for them something substantial, while the masses gained only a simulacrum. The test, as that typical Indian liberal, Mr. Srinivasa Sastri, insists, will come when again the Empire finds itself at war. The chivalry that Indians showed in the Great War, when they refused to take advantage of England’s difficulties, will not be repeated. Their bolder thinkers now look forward to the war that will herald their liberation. With a little generosity and a little trust when the Constitution was drafted, this phase of total alienation might have been avoided. Had not considerations of prestige forbidden the Governors to bargain over the veto, an accommodation might have been reached with the Congress even after its victory. It is now too late to hope for reconciliation. 


This article appeared in the April 28, 1937 issue of the magazine.