Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett

The World's Largest Question Mark

If all the problems of the post-war world the question of India's future seems the most difficult of solution. If the problem seems difficult from London, Washington or Canberra, it becomes increasingly so as one approaches India, and grows in intensity the longer one stays and the more one travels in that unhappy land.

It is an over-simplification to blame all of India's troubles on to the British Government or to believe that if the British withdrew the country's troubles would be quickly regulated. It is also over-simplifying things to suggest that the Indians will never be able to run their own country or to govern themselves.

The thing that perhaps strikes a foreigner most forcibly after he has lived in India a few months, and followed the nationalist press is, that the forces making for disunity in the country are stronger than those making for unity; that the gulfs dividing the leading political parties are much wider in India than in any other country in the world. Were it not so India could have achieved substantial independence by now.

Some of the dissension is of recent origin, much of it has its roots far back in history, derived from social organisation, religious and racial differences. The British Government in the past has doubtless exploited these differences, played one side against the other on the "divide et impera" theory of simplifying rule from the centre. But the fact remains that there are solid walls of dissension which are being strengthened every day and cannot be melted away by explaining their origin. With the best will in the world as Sir Stafford Cripps discovered the British administration cannot convene a government acceptable to the masses of India, and walk out and leave the place without an almost certain civil war.

Perhaps a civil war is inevitable anyway. There are many in India who think so and feel that only out of a great upheaval will the type of leaders be found to guide India through the great social revolution necessary to bridge the few centuries of time lag and bring India into line with the rest of the world. But Britain is not likely to risk plunging the country into civil war, for obvious reasons.

The well-gnawed bone of contention at the moment, of course, is the stand of Mohammed Ali Jinnah on Pakistan, or the establishment of separate independent Muslim States in those provinces where the Muslims are in a majority. Jinnah's Muslim League with little support before the war has had a great boost since war broke out, especially after Congress adopted its "boycott the war" policy. Although Jinnah has given no active support to the war and has always referred to it in vague wishy-washy terms in his speeches, his Muslim League took no active part in the Congress boycott; Jinnah in fact roundly condemned the boycott. Therein he showed political astuteness rather than any warmth for Allied ideals. He gained the support of the British, and after Congress leaders were locked up his party seized their opportunity and captured elections in provinces where they had been hopelessly defeated by Congress before.

He claims the support of the whole Muslim population, about 90,000,000, although in few Muslim villages I visited did anyone even know his name. As the Muslims have been the most successful warriors in India since they first invaded the country in the eleventh century, he carries some weight when he threatens to lead his 90,000,000 people in revolt if his demands for Pakistan are not met. He will not agree to take part in any government unless Pakistan is already established, and will not even discuss with Congress leaders the possibility of forming a government unless his demands for Pakistan are agreed to "unconditionally" beforehand, Jinnah refuses to believe the evidence of his own eyes that Muslims and Hindus can get along together. In villages and cities all over India one finds them living and doing business together without a suggestion of bad feeling. In a long talk with Jinnah on Hindu-Muslim relations, before I left Bombay for the last time, I pointed out that Hindus and Muslims worked successfully together in the trade unions in Bombay. Their interests were the same, both wanted decent wages and living conditions. They voted with one voice, and when there were divisions in the votes cast there were Muslims and Hindus with the "ayes" and Hindus and Muslims with the "nays." Division of voting was never on a communal basis.

"Ah ha. But you do not know," replied Mohammed Ali. "My Muslim people always have the worst of it in the trade unions. It may not seem like that to you, but we are usually in a minority and it is the Hindus that always get what they want."

"But surely when people are fighting for questions of immediate self-interest, improvement of living conditions and such, there can be no room for communal quarrels. Surely a few annas more per day in wages or a couple of hours off the length of the working week is desirable and acceptable to Hindu and Muslim alike? Don't the workers regard themselves as wage-earners first and Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees or Muslims last?"

He shook his narrow silvered head and pursed his lips, and without answering my question said:

"My next great task is to take my people out of the trade-union movement and form separate Muslim Trade Unions. Only then will my people get justice."

This was a typical Jinnah utterance. He had taken no part in the formation of trade unions in India nor in their hard-fought struggle for legal recognition. But once they were established as a powerful, effective organisation Jinnah would carve off a large slice for his own use, just as in the broader struggle for Indian independence he had capitalised on Gandhi's awakening of a nationalistic spirit amongst Indians by splitting off a large section of the workers for independence to follow his super-nationalism of Pakistan. Jinnah has never had to build from the ground up as have the Congress leaders, but has taken great sections of Muslim voters from existing organisations. His sections and blocs have been created ready made for him, but he has learned much from Hitler and Mussolini in manipulating racial and nationalist issues to satisfy his own lust for power.

Jinnah and other smaller party leaders are breaking united organisations up into their racial or religious component parts and so the process of disruption goes on and India's hopes for presenting united demands, representative of the wishes of the whole country, recede.

Where is there hope for new leadership for India? That was a question I tried to have answered during my two years' peregrinations in the country. It was never answered satisfactorily. There are so many contradictions amongst the present leaders that few thoughtful Indians believe any will survive the immediate post-war period, unless Jinnah runs away with the bit between his teeth and succeeds in setting up some form of fascist dictatorship. Gandhi is an old man whose astonishing political somersaults have bewildered his own followers, and it is generally recognised that his day is done.

The great apostle of non-violence, he shares some responsibility for the greatest bloodletting in India since the Amritsar massacre. He fatalistically accepted the consequences of the Congress boycott of the war and the arrest of its leaders, which he invited. A friend of the Untouchables he still believed in maintaining the caste system. Postulating the creed of the primitive, and an enemy of the machine age, some of his best friends and chief supporters are India's leading industrialists, who saw in Gandhi's nationalism a chance to retain the profits of India's rising industrialisation for themselves and in his conservatism a bulwark against the socialist minded younger leaders like Nehru.

Nehru, the great white hope of liberal friends of India all over the world, and the idol of intellectuals inside the country who hoped he would lead a Socialist Congress after the war, has lost much support, both abroad and inside India, by his weakness in trailing along with the Gandhi band waggon, getting himself arrested at the old man's behest, and refusing to make any attempt to grasp the torch of leadership from the faltering, eccentric hand that held it. The weakness in Congress leadership seems to originate from the lack of contact with ordinary problems of the masses. The voluble conferences and meetings which sway back and forth across India discussing this and that way of getting rid of the British rarely bothers with the day to day difficulties of the people. The leaders are drawn almost exclusively from the professional classes. One felt the whole organisation needed a transfusion of new blood from the working and peasant classes to bring Congress down to earth again.

The Communist Party in India, as in most other countries where it operates, is nearer to the masses than any other party. It is small numerically, but probably ranks in importance next to the Congress and Muslim League. Membership, of course, is open to Hindus, Muslims and Untouchables alike, and its main power comes from its influence in the trade unions and peasant organisations. It has increased in prestige since the outbreak of war, which it actively supported.

It was notable that during the August, 1942, riots, there was practically no striking in areas where the Communists controlled the trade unions. During the period of Jap air raids on Calcutta and the subsequent wholesale flight of workers, it was the Communists who stepped into the breach and organised gangs to clean the streets and carry on essential services. They also did good work in organising famine relief and spying out food hoarders during the Bengal famine. Many intelligent Indians and British officials with whom I spoke, including the Home Secretary of the Indian Government, Mr. Maxwell, thought that the best leaders for India of the future would come from the ranks of the Communist Party whether or not they remained inside the party organisation. Mr. Maxwell incidentally should know, as most prominent figures in India's political life have passed through his hands at one time or another on their way to gaol.

Another example of the contradictions in Indian life, however, is the fact that some of the workers, especially the Untouchables, distrust the Communists because they say the leadership is in the hands of high-caste Brahmins, the traditional oppressors of the Untouchables. The Communists have not clearly expressed their attitude towards Pakistan, but have announced themselves in favour of "self-determination" for minorities.

Almost the whole civilised world wants to see a free, self-governing India for various reasons. Liberals; because they believe the ideals of liberty and democracy should be available to all peoples of whatsoever caste or creed. The common man, because he knows that any country as rich as India as long as it remains a colonial dependency, is in danger of becoming a pawn in the scramble for power. Most English people, because they don't see why their sons should be sent to India to keep the peace, fully believing England continually must make sacrifices to "mother" such countries as long as they are dependencies. Business people because they see in India's 400,000,000 an enormous potential market once their living standards are raised, and surely when a country can plan for itself and organise its own economy, living standards and purchasing powers will be increased.

There is plenty of goodwill towards India from all quarters of the globe. That doesn't mean that there aren't interested factions in England that will fight tooth and nail to prevent any measure of self-government being established in India, because they fear for the safety of their Indian investments; but such factions represent an insignificant minority of English opinion. There has never before been such worldwide interest in India's future, but the Indian leaders themselves have been slow to capitalise on the interest and sympathy of world opinion. By their failure to present united demands they offer an excuse (if not justification) for Britain to remain in the saddle at New Delhi.

One of the most hopeful and practical outlines for real independence came not from the politicians but from a group of Indian industrialists and business men. Known as the "Bombay Plan" it was drawn up by a group of India's most forward-looking business leaders, and was designed to revolutionise the whole basis of Indian life.

Based on the Russian series of "five year plans," the Bombay Plan over a period of fifteen years envisages a doubling of the per capita income of the country. Industry is to be stepped up from providing 17 per cent. of the national income to 35 per cent., and agriculture will be reduced from 53 to 40 per cent.

They are no starry-eyed dreamers who have worked out this plan for a forward surge of India's life. They are men like the Tatas, owners of the sixty million pound Tata enterprises, including the greatest iron and steel plant in the British Empire; G. D. Birla, millionaire mill-owner, friend of Gandhi and president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce; Sir Shri Ram, banker and owner of the Delhi Cloth Mills; and other hard-boiled industrialists, bankers and manufacturers, all of them used to planning and building in a big way.

The plan calls for tremendous development in the basic industries, to produce first the raw materials, and then the machines that make machines. The estimated expenditure necessary to put India into the foremost ranks of manufacturing nations by 1960 is over ten million crores of rupees, or seven billion pounds sterling.

Electric power, industrial chemicals, housing, transportation, agriculture, education, nutrition, none are neglected in this master plan which has now been submitted to the government. Cottage industries and village crafts will be harnessed to the general scheme and absorbed into industry as the plan develops.

The total industrial investments in pre-war India, excluding railways and transport, amounted to seven hundred crores. The plan calls for an expenditure of six times that amount on industry alone. The following is a break-down of the proportions in which it is proposed the entire ten million crores should be used.

Industry 4,480
Agriculture 1,240
Communications 940
Education 490
Health 450
Housing 2,200
Mining 200
Total 10,000

And here is how the money is to be raised:

Hoarded Wealth 300
Balance of Trade 600
Foreign Borrowing 700
Savings 4,000
Credited moneys 3,400
Sterling securities 1,000
Total 10,000

When it was announced in January, 1944, the plan got a mixed reception in the Indian papers and little notice in the world press. Jinnah dismissed the whole thing as "the genesis of Indian Fascism," presumably because the planners were Parsees and Hindus. Viceroy Lord Wavell welcomed the plan as a constructive basis for post-war planning in India, but indicated that one would have to be satisfied with something on a less grandiose scale. The Communists gave high praise to the general conception, but pointed out that the question of ownership of the utility and other services it was intended to supply must be gone into and the riches of the country must not be mobilised for the profit of a few private persons.

Whatever the defects in the plan, the fact remains that it is a great energiser, which by reason of the standing of those who drew it up can not be dismissed as an impractical vision. It is the one effective, constructive idea which has come out of India for decades. Not until something like this "Bombay Plan" has been realised can there be much hope for real independence for India. An industrialised country means an organised country, and a tremendous raising of the educational and cultural level. The drafts for the plan were not released to the press till a couple of weeks after I left India, but the enthusiasm and intelligence of some of the planners was infectious enough to send me away with a glimmer of hope that even in our generation there might be some explosive change of life comparable to that which took place in Russia and Turkey at the close of the last war.

Prophets of gloom who fear that an industrialised India would become self-supporting and disappear as a world market should take courage from the case of Russia, whose imports from abroad increased steadily in proportion to her socialised industrial expansion. There are no limits to the appetites of 400,000,000 people once they have the power to buy.

An industrial revolution would be a new broom to sweep away the cobwebs of ignorance and superstition which dominate every phase of life in India. Caste systems and communal differences cannot stand up against the impact of the machine age and the education necessary to sustain it. If the son of an "Untouchable" proves a better mechanic or draughtsman than the son of the Brahmin, then it will be he that gets the better job, and he will lift his family forever out of the caste to which some traditional vocational pursuit of his forebears has condemned him. Trade unions and political parties will rise based on practical needs and led by practical men who have graduated as leaders in the ordinary day to day struggle for improvement of life. The negative mysticism and pacifism of a Gandhi, or the artificial creeds of a Mohammed Ali Jinnah, would not gain much support amongst people with any measure of industrial organisation and resultant political consciousness. But it is not until the masses become used to self-government in the narrowed forms of activity within trade unions, peasants' societies and co-operatives that they will be able to take part effectively in a broader form of national self-government. Industrialisation, with the necessity for vast numbers of technically trained workers, will, perforce, step up educational opportunities.

Only the economic freedom that an industrial revolution can bring about can do away with the horrible social abuses which exist all over India at present the caste system whereby "Untouchables" live in filthy ghettoes and pick up their education by trying to listen through doors and; windows of the school rooms not daring to associate with caste children inside; the slave status of widows who have been unfortunate enough to have their husbands die often in childhood before the marriage was consummated; the ruinous position of even a high caste Brahmin who has been "cursed" with a family of daughters that he must richly endow at marriage; the corroding corruption which has arisen in every government department because of shortage of jobs and the necessity of bribing one's way to advancement.

That these things still exist in India to-day, after almost 200 years of British rule, was vividly illustrated in a news story published in the "Hindustan Times" of 3rd July, 1943. The story is a verbatim quote from the newspaper and needs no explaining.

"May God forgive me. May the world forgive me." This is the touching conclusion of a letter addressed to the press by Mohanjal G. Desai, a railway employee working at the Palej station near Broach, who, driven to desperation by various circumstances poisoned two of his daughters, then burnt his wife and a woman who was living with him, and finally set his own clothes on fire in the most tragic drama ever enacted on a railway platform.

"It is reported that Mr. Desai, who had been working for seven years at the Palej station, was ordered to be transferred, recently. Mr. Desai is believed to have considered this unjust and defied the order. He was consequently dismissed from service. This, it is alleged, upset his mind.

"On 18th June, Mr. Desai entered the Palej station at about 4.20 a.m., accompanied by his wife, Nirmalaben, aged 25, and the woman whom he looked upon as his sister Shan-taben. He had equipped himself with pieces of cloth dipped in kerosene, a few bottles of kerosene, and a sharp-pointed bamboo spear.

"Then shutting the door of an office room on the platform, which he had entered with the others, he quietly proceeded to set fire to the clothes of his wife, the other woman and ultimately himself.

"When the station master tried to force his way into the room he was threatened with the spear. A customs sepoy on the spot fired a shot at Mr. Desai, but it missed him. Another sepoy is reported to have rushed to the spot and aimed a shot which killed Mr. Desai. His body had already been severely burnt. Of the two women, one died on the spot and the other in hospital.

"Before coming to the station Mr. Desai had given poison to two of his daughters, Bhanu (aged 7) and Baby (aged 4). The younger girl died and the other was saved by a doctor. Mr. Desai's third, the youngest, daughter, Usha was away with her maternal uncle at the time of the tragedy."

The most lurid light on the whole grim story is thrown by a letter which was addressed by Mr. Desai to the press in Guajrati, in which he said:

"This is neither suicide nor murder. This is just a sacrifice at the altar of official high-handedness and injustice. I hope this sacrifice will quieten the roaring flood of official cruelty.

"Previous officers used to take bribes and do some good to those from whom they got the bribes. But they never used to cut the head off one to give it to the other. They took bribes to give a good post. And the man who gave the bribe got the post. This may not be justice, but it is common practice. To-day a man who can give money can get him little to offset the feelings of depression. I doubt if there is any country about which one has a greater feeling of hopelessness.

From a military viewpoint, however, there were encouraging signs. Lord Louis Mountbatten had arrived in October, and a good clean breeze swept through GHQ at New Delhi to blow away some of the worst of the obstructors and Blimps. India command was relegated to training, supply and defence against the North-West Frontier tribesmen. A new operational command, staffed by new vigorous personnel, eager to finish the war, was formed to carry on the war against the Japs.

For a time the two commands existed in opposite buildings of the Imperial Secretariat at New Delhi, and one unconsciously quickened one's gait when crossing the road from India Command to the South-East Asia Command headquarters.

Before long SEAC headquarters was removed from the corrosive do-nothing atmosphere of New Delhi and transferred to Kandy in Ceylon. Relations between the three British services and between British and American staffs improved noticeably within a few weeks of Lord Louis' arrival, and there was for the first time a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm in the air.

The central Pacific area to which I was being transferred was a theatre untroubled by political complications of subject peoples, independence movements or communal strife. I looked forward to it as a theatre where a general or an admiral could concentrate on fighting rather than on diplomacy and politics.