Clemens Dutt

Indian Politics: An Analysis

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 7, July 1925, No. 7, pp. 399-409, (4,235 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Present Tendencies in India

The death of C. R. Das, the leader of the Swaraj Party, came at a critical moment. For India at the present time stands before a new stage of political development. That is the explanation of the present spectacle of confusion in Indian politics, a confusion not merely obvious to outsiders, but apparent and alarming to the central figures on the Indian political stage. During the crowded experience of the post-war years many changes have taken place, which have served to demonstrate clearly the nature of the class forces involved in the play of Indian politics, and which have culminated in the present position of complete bankruptcy of Indian nationalist politics on existing lines. The collapse of the non-co-operation movement, as led by Gandhi, marked the end of one stage in development. The crisis which is now threatening the Swaraj Party, which took the place of Gandhi’s movement as the representative movement of Indian nationalism, marks the end of another stage. Much to the surprise of the Swarajists themselves the logical conclusion of their policy is showing itself to be a relapse to liberal politics. It has been apparent to all that C. R. Das was recently angling for a possible reconciliation with the British Government. His policy was supported by other Right wing leaders such as Mr. Motilal Nehru, and there were even faint indications of a response from Great Britain, in so far as a modification of the Indian Constitutional Reform Scheme was the chief point at issue. Meanwhile the rank and file of the Indian nationalist movement stand aghast before the collapse; while new forces, in particular the slowly growing force of organised labour and the more rapidly growing appreciation of its importance, indicate that an entirely new situation is gradually emerging.

The Economic Bases

To obtain a proper appreciation of the various factors which have determined the present situation, it is essential to examine the economic bases of Indian politics. In the light of such knowledge, the developments which have caused such confusion and uncertainty in the minds of the chief protagonists stand clearly explained, and it is found, indeed, that the whole history of the last five years, including Gandhism and its inevitable collapse, and “Swarajism” and its relapse into moderatism, could all have been predicted with astonishing accuracy. In spite of the vaunted “spirituality” of India, and of the mysticism which is supposed to be such a feature of the Indian mind, the effects of economic factors seem to be more clearly demonstrable in India than even in materialistic Western Europe. The reason for this is, perhaps, to be found in the very evident economic exploitation that has always been the background of British domination in India, and in the consequent tug-of-war of various British and Indian commercial interests which is so largely responsible for the reality of Indian politics.

These various interests can be roughly characterised as follows. On the British side, we have a practically united front in defence of British interests. The prime concern of British administration in India, and of British capitalist politicians at home, is, naturally, the protection of the interests of British imperialist capitalism in India. Sir Michael ODwyer, in an illuminating phrase, recently spoke of “our duty to our imperial position, to our kinsfolk in India, and to a thousand millions of British capital invested in India.” Behind British rule, therefore, stands British capitalism, and the concern of the one is the interest of the other. That phrase of a thousand millions of British capital investments in India is worth noting also by those Indians whose conception of British capitalism and its relation to India seems to be limited to the competition of the Lancashire textile industry. In the present stage, foreign capital investment is playing a far more important part than is the dumping of foreign manufacturers or the draining of raw materials.

On the Indian side, the two great bulwarks of British domination have always been, firstly, the passive acquiescence of the vast mass of 300 million ignorant exploited workers and peasants; and, secondly, the active support of the few million titled tools and mercenaries constituting the Indian landlord class and aristocracy with its hangers on. Besides these, a number of new forces have gradually come into prominence, and it is, of course, just this continuous development of new social classes, and the antagonisms resulting therefrom, that renders vain any hope of establishing a state of equilibrium in the tug-of-war of interests such as to allow of the perpetuation of the status quo.

First in class consciousness, if not in ultimate importance, is the rising Indian capitalist class. They are already strong enough to challenge successfully the British claim to exclusive exploitation of India, but they fear their own workers too much to dare risk an attempt to throw off the British connection. Next comes the ever-increasing educated middle-class, professionals, intelligentsia and petit-bourgeoisie with much less to lose and much more to gain from a thorough-going policy of India for the Indians. As a social force, however, they count for little, for taken as a whole they are weak, incapable of self-reliance, hesitant and timid. The crucial factor of the present day is the emergence of a class-conscious working class. The capitalist transformation of India creates out of the masses a modern homogeneous proletariat in defiance of the traditional limits and differences of castes, sects and races. They form the advance-guard of a movement which will eventually put an end to the dumb passivity of the peasant millions. More and more of the latter, whose poverty and exploitation continually increases, are day by day thrown into the ranks of the wage labourers.

The Political Parties

As yet the working class is practically unorganised. The various political parties, however, reflect pretty accurately the economic needs of the other sections we have mentioned. Thus the Liberal or Moderate party voices the interests of the landlords and more substantial Indian capitalists. At one time they dominated the National Congress, but they were soon swamped by the swelling influx of the petit-bourgeoisie. During the rapid period of development during the war and immediately after, British capitalism was ready to make big sacrifices to secure the loyalty of the Moderates. As a matter of fact very little was required, the promise of assistance for the development of Indian industry and the Montagu-Chelmsford scheme of constitutional reform sufficing for the purpose. The reforms drew off the big bourgeoisie from the National Congress, which was left in the hands largely of the petit-bourgeoisie. The latter, under the leadership of Gandhi, with his banner of non-violent non-co-operation, attempted to put themselves at the head of the growing movement of the masses, but, as in so many analogous cases in European history, they succeeded of course only in betraying it. The final collapse of Gandhism took place in February, 1922, when the Bardoli Conference renounced mass civil disobedience, but for two years afterwards Gandhi’s followers conducted a losing struggle for the old negative programme. The revolutionary crisis, however, was past, direct action was out of the question, and the active nationalists could less and less content themselves with preaching Gandhi’s version of Tolstoyanism. The important bourgeois section that had not been rallied to the Moderate banner by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were determined to use the Councils as a new field of activity. They formed the Swaraj Party in December, 1922, in defiance of the Gandhist majority in the National Congress, but in the course of the next two years they obtained the ascendancy also within the Congress itself.

The Swaraj Party

The history of the Swaraj Party is an illuminating chapter in the history of Indian nationalism. It illustrates the development of a peaceful constitutional opposition, an ordinary “Redmondite” nationalist party, from a bellicose party which entered the Councils with the sole intention to obstruct, to wreck and to destroy. In this transformation the Swaraj Party has shown itself true to the character of its leadership and the nature of the electorate it serves. It is definitely a bourgeois nationalist party, and its prominent figures are practically all connected with capitalist and landlord interests. The electorate constitutes a small fraction of relatively well-to-do elements, numbering hardly 2 per cent. of the population, and in enlisting their support, a task which the Swarajists found more difficult than they expected, little attention could be spared for the desires and needs of the remaining 98 per cent.

The Swarai Party was formed with a view to the elections held at the end of 1923. Just in the nick of time they received the benediction of the National Congress at a special session of the latter. Naturally their first programme was a radical one, thunderous in its demand for responsible government, and declaring, in the actual words of the text, for “uniform, continuous and consistent obstruction within the Councils, with a view to making Government through the Councils impossible.” Except in the Central Provinces, however, they did not obtain a majority, and this simple objective had to be abandoned. Their first step was to bargain for the support of a section of the Liberals. By the terms of this bargain the forty-three Swarajists in the Central Legislative Assembly received the support of some twenty-four Liberals on condition that obstruction should only be resorted to if there was no response from the Government after a reasonable time to a resolution demanding a reform of the constitutional machinery. This demand was moved and carried in the Legislative Assembly in February, 1924, by seventy-six votes to forty-eight. There was, of course, no response, and obstruction was at last entered on by refusal of supplies -- the throwing out of the Budget. The rejected measures were, of course, all restored by use of the Viceroy’s power of certification. Even this obstruction, however, proved too unconstitutional for the Liberal “Independents” who had entered into coalition with the Swarajists. This year, when the time for the annual display of obstruction came round, the Independents discovered that it was not logical to refuse supplies, when the vote was rendered powerless by the Viceroy’s prerogative, unless it was backed up by recommending the people not to pay taxation. Accordingly, this year the Independents refused to vote with the Swarajists and the Finance Bill was passed.

The renouncement of the original Swarajist policy of obstruction is naively explained in an official statement of the party issued in May, 1924. It states:—

Our position is really not so much one of “obstruction” in the parliamentary sense as that of resistance to the obstruction placed in the path of Swaraj by the bureaucratic Government.

A transparent cloak for the confession that they had returned to the paths of ordinary constitutional opposition.

A further change of policy also took place, of considerable interest as laying bare in the clearest possible way, the class character of the Swaraj Party. Originally the party was pledged not to accept office, to serve on Committees, or to move resolutions and introduce Bills. This was an unnecessary limitation for a constitutional party representing capitalist interests. Thus we find that the manifesto above-mentioned declares that the Swaraj policy “must in future be more and more effectively directed to the varying needs and problems of our national life.” Accordingly, the programme was modified so as to allow of the introduction of “resolutions, measures and bills necessary for the healthy growth of our national life.” No clearer proof is required that by national interests the Swaraj Party understands Indian capitalist interests than to note that the use made of the above decision was for Swarajists to serve on the Government Steel Protection Committee, and to vote for the Steel Protection Bill, granting an enormous bounty to the Tata steel interests without a thought for the conditions of the exploited steel workers.

The British Labour Government

It should not be forgotten that some measure of responsibility for the stultification of the Swaraj Party lies at the door of the British Labour Government. For years India has been ground down in suffering under the political oppression of Tory imperialism. Some Indian nationalists were disposed to see signs for hope in the coming of a Labour government. But an ominous presage was the letter of Mr. MacDonald, rightfully interpreted as a threat, the meaning of which was to be made clear in the nine months’ regime that followed. The British Labour Government changed nothing at all. It was made clear that there was to be no advance towards self-government, no freedom for the thousands of political prisoners, no introduction of political liberty, no relaxation of military autocracy, no amelioration of the lot of the millions of workers and peasants. It demonstrated the complete identification of the British Labour Government with the interests of British capitalism. Further, the Labour Government was responsible for the addition of two measures of the first importance to the long list of crimes against Indian political freedom. The first was the Cawnpore Communist trial (in which a pioneer group of Indian Communists were convicted on a charge of “waging war against the King” for the crime principally of receiving political letters from Mr. M. N. Roy), which struck a blow at the very possibility of working-class political organisation. The second was the Bengal Ordinance, the virtual introduction of martial law in Bengal, which served as an excuse for the arrest and imprisonment without trial of the Left wing leaders of the Swaraj Party The effect was two-fold. It finally killed the possibility for “civil disobedience” and in so far assisted the Swarajists. But it made the Swaraj Party itself helpless before the ascendency of the Right wing. The Swarajists were driven into the hands of the capitalists and into the paths of barren constitutionalism. Nor has there been any real change since the fall of the Labour Government in the British Labour attitude. In spite of the hopeless bankruptcy of the sham constitution, Lord Olivier still maintains that there was “no prima facie case” for the Labour Government even going so far as to set up a Royal Commission. Colonel Wedgwood, in a letter to Lajpat Rai, speaks as if the Swarajist had betrayed the Labour Party rather than the reverse. He notes that there is in the Labour Party:—

A growing feeling of being completely out of touch with the Swarajists and out of sympathy. “Just another set of self-seeking bosses,” is the feeling prevalent.

The Indian nationalist press could, perhaps, be pardoned for hinting that the same description might be more aptly applied to their experience of the British Labour Government.

The Reversion to Liberalism

At the present time the Swaraj Party clearly stands before a crisis. Its relapse into moderatism means that there is now very little difference between Swarajists and Liberals. This is evident in such accessions to the party as Mr. P. C. Ray, Secretary of the Calcutta National Liberal League, who recently declared: “I do not now find any material difference between me and Mr. C. R. Das in regard to our political objectives, or in the methods of obtaining them.” The fact, also, that such a typical loyalist as the Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri could say that he “was very near the end” of his membership of the Liberal Party, and was “inclined to be a Swarajist,” throws a clear light on the present tendency of the party. The only point in reality that separates the two parties is that of obstruction on principle. If the Swarajists were only to give that up, the last distinction would be gone and the Liberals and Swarajists together could co-operate with the British administration in securing law and order and promoting measures for “the healthy growth of the national life.” But for such docility, the Swarajist leaders would expect some tangible reward, notably positions of greater responsibility that can be given by the present puppet Councils. It is to this bargain with the Government that the Swarajist leadership is now tending. Mr. C. R. Das, in particular, was advancing step by step in this direction, and at the end it seemed that very little would suffice for a complete “reconciliation” between him and the British Government. To show his readiness, he had not merely emphasised the ideal of Dominion status as the whole goal of the nationalist movement, he had not only taken every opportunity to denounce violence and all forms of revolutionary activity, but he went out of his way to utter panegyrics on the British Empire (that “free alliance” and “great Commonwealth of Nations” as he called it at the recent Faridpur conference), and to declare how little was wanting for him to undertake to begin to co-operate with the Government. Speaking in the Bengal Legislative Council in March, 1925, on the motion for the rejection of the Ministers’ salaries he declared:—

I am not opposed to co-operation, but co-operation is not possible under this system. Honest co-operation cannot be offered now because the system does not allow it. It can be done when you have improved your system, when there is real give and take, when there is anxiety on the part of Government to relieve the distress of the people, to recognise the rights of Indians.

Again, at the Bengal Provincial Nationalist Congress he declared with regard to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms:—

If there was a chance for self-government under it I would cooperate. If some real responsibility were transferred, I would co-operate.

And he affirmed his confidence that he could see “signs of a real change of heart” on the part of the Government.

It is clear that the major aim of the Swaraj Party under the leadership of Das became to strike a bargain with the Government for the reform of the reforms. Up to now the Government has only gone so far as to appoint a committee, the Muddiman Committee, which has issued two reports, a majority and a minority report, both of which provide a clear exposure of the unworkability of the Act. Lord Birkenhead encouraged Mr. Das with the proposal that he should co-operate in putting down revolutionary violence, and it is currently reported that the question of a possible modification of the reform schemes is one of the objects for which the Viceroy has made his present visit to Great Britain. This is about the sum total of the signs of Government “change of heart,” and there, is no reason to believe that the Government will feel any need to hurry to secure another support for its rule in India by rallying the Swarajist leaders. But a bargain of some sort is inevitable, whether in the near future or not, and with it the reversion of the Swarajists into the Liberals of 1914 will be complete. But there will be this difference. The rank and file of the Swaraj Party, and the mass of active nationalist up and down the country, have passed through many experiences since 1914, and will no longer follow their leaders blindly. The rank and file are already alienated. They are not interested in the parliamentary manoeuvring. Hence a widespread feeling that the nationalist movement is at a standstill, which is not confined to the masses. The Bombay Chronicle speaks of a “general paralysis and stagnation.” Lala Lajpat Rai speaks of “chaos and confusion.” “The political situation is anything but hopeful and encouraging,” he declares. “The people are sunk in depression. Everything—principles, practices, parties and politics—seem to be in a state of disintegration and dissolution.”

There is, therefore, an admitted failure of the nationalist movement on all sides. Gandhi’s political influence has been destroyed. He has admitted the Swarajists “defeated and humbled him.” His yarn-spinning franchise for membership of the National Congress is arousing a final revolt. At the recent Maharashtra Nationalist Conference he was openly requested to retire from politics. But the Swarajists are not much better off. A pact between them and the Government would be an open betrayal of the nationalist movement and a split in the Swarajist Party would be inevitable. It would be the old story over again, British imperialism winning the allegiance of a new set of leaders only to find that they have not the masses behind them.

The Labour Party

So far the masses, the millions of illiterate workers and peasants have been entirely left out of account. True, it has become fashionable to recognise their existence. Even Mr. Das was once insistent on the need of “Swaraj for the masses, and not for the classes.” But events have proved that this is nothing but a verbal trick and means nothing in practice. Several of the Swarajist leaders, however, have been genuinely dismayed at the absorption of the party in bourgeois interests to the utter neglect of interest in even ordinary labour welfare questions. With experience of contact with British Labour Party leaders in their minds, the result has been the sudden new formation of an Indian Labour Party. But there are many features connected with this Labour Party which give rise to serious doubts as to its future as an organised movement. In the first place it appears to consist only of leaders, and they all members of the Legislative Assembly. Further, these leaders are mostly personalities already well-known as bourgeois nationalists, whose personal rivalries with the nationalist leaders, and general standing in the nationalist movement is unaffected by the fact that they appear as leaders of a Labour Party. Starting under these handicaps, the party is almost poisoned at birth, and could almost be written down as a mere parliamentary manoeuvre. But the need for attention to labour economic questions, not to speak of political organisation of labour, is so urgent that it would be strange if the new party could give no help in this direction. But whether it can ever become a party of the masses, and a political organisation too, is another question. With the present bankruptcy of nationalist politics, the stage is set for a re-grouping. Supposing, however, the Swaraj Party splits, as indicated above. Will the rank and file go into the new Labour Party? It is extremely unlikely. The new Labour Party cannot take the place of a nationalist organisation. It must be concluded that its function must be limited to the representation of the needs of the youthful trade union organisation. Even so, if it is to become a live organisation, representing working-class interests, its impetus must come from below, and not from above. If it limits itself to solid work in assisting trade union organisation, the political careerists will leave it, the real trade unionists will come to the fore, and it could develop into a body of real value and significance.

It must be remembered that labour organisation is still at a very elementary stage. In many respects labour conditions are notoriously the worst in the world. Labour legislation is as backward, or more so, than in China or Japan. Legislation legalising the existence of trade unions is still only pending. Not unnaturally, therefore, trade unions are only weakly developed, and the Indian Trade Union Congress has negligible power. Labour is disgracefully unrepresented in the Legislative Assembly and Provincial Councils, while existing Labour leaders are only too often merely bourgeois philanthropists, or even middle-class careerists bent on obtaining public notice or Government recognition.

Wanted—A Workers’ and Peasants’ Party

Any Indian party which would avoid the fiasco of present nationalist politics must base itself on a social-economic programme for remedying the present disabilities of Indian Labour. Demands for adequate labour legislation, including the establishment of the rights of trade organisation, must find a prominent place in its programme. It must concentrate its attention on housing, education and the social conditions of the people. It must fight the rent oppression of the landlords and work for the improvement of peasant conditions. So far these things have been dropped because they have been against the interests of the Indian capitalists and landlords. It will be remembered that even Lajpat Rai, now heading the Labour Party, spoke more of the danger of hurting Indian industry than of helping Indian labour. The nationalist leaders have refused to advance any such programme as we have indicated, because they will not countenance an invasion of their positions as capitalists or landlords. Mr. Das called for help from public funds for the Bengal peasants. But he must have known that such help would only be swallowed up by the rack-renting landlords, and that the real help must come from a revision of the present oppressive rights of the landlords. A popular party based on a real social economic programme would lose the present nationalist leaders, but it would have the masses behind it. In championing the cause of the masses it would inevitably be thrown into the struggle against imperialism. British imperialism is the biggest exploiter of the Indian workers and peasants, and the native capitalists and landlords look on it as their ally in exploitation. Such a party, therefore, must be more than a labour welfare party; it must be a mass nationalist party. It is along these lines alone, the lines of a workers’ and peasants’ party, that a new nationalist party can rally the whole country to its support, and achieve national independence.