Clemens Dutt

The Class Struggle in India

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 11, July 1929, No. 7, pp. 405-416 (4,166 words).
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Meerut Trial

The trial of thirty-one Indian working class leaders at Meerut occupies the centre of the political stage in India to-day. Attempts may be made to disregard it or belittle its importance (the Daily Herald, more shameless than the capitalist Press, at first suppressed all mention of it), but it remains the most important event of the period in India, giving the truest indication of what is happening there and throwing the clearest light on the alignment of class forces at the present time. All the vague chattering about strained relations between “India” and “Britain,” and the need for “statesmanship” in the Labour Government’s handling of this delicate problem, all the conjecture and wrangling over the possibilities of the Simon Commission Report, all the intrigue and manoeuving in the Indian puppet legislatures, all the commotion over Hindu-Moslem differences, serves only to hide the reality of the situation and pales almost into irrelevance before the issues comprehended in this signal of the coming mass conflict with British imperialism. The Meerut trial reveals and expresses the new stage of acuter class antagonisms in India, it marks the ripening of the strength and consciousness of the Indian proletariat, it tests and exposes the insincerity and cowardice of the Indian bourgeois nationalists, and it provides the admission by British imperialism itself of their own recognition of the greatest threat and danger to themselves.

The big strike movement in India during the last eighteen months has been only one sign of the new period characterised by the emergence of the proletariat as an independent political force. The Meerut trial marks a further stage in which the centre of gravity of the anti-imperialist struggle and the main line of Imperialist attack definitely shifts from the bourgeois nationalist movement to the proletarian movement. British imperialism seeks to reduce its enemy to impotence with one blow. But just as the “Bolshevist Conspiracy” trial at Cawnpore, during the period of the Labour Government in 1924, (denoted the beginning and not the end of revolutionary consciousness and Communist sympathy among the Indian workers, so now the Meerut trial means, not the extinction of the Communist movement but a turning point from which the period of the struggle of the Indian working class for leadership in the mass movement against imperialism takes on a new and definite character.

The Cawnpore trial was a small thing in itself, in spite of its significance and its results. There were only four victims and they were all young men whose association with the labour movement in India had only just begun. In the present trial not only do three of the former victims again appear, and this time with considerably greater standing as recognised leaders of the organised workers’ movement (Comrade S. A. Dange, for example, is the present assistant secretary of the Trade Union Congress and General Secretary of the large militant union of textile workers in Bombay that has conducted the strike there), but the majority of the arrested men are prominent leaders of working-class organisations, most of them officials of trade unions, and all of them more or less directly associated with mass movements of workers or peasants.

It is no accident that the men now on trial are so closely identified with the strike movement. It is precisely the fact that they are not theorists or conspirators but the actual leaders of the proletarian revolt against intolerable conditions of exploitation that is at once the reason for their arrest and the proof that the intention will be frustrated. For the movement among the workers has already too deep a foundation to be destroyed by the arrest of its leaders. It is only necessary, in this connection to refer to the events in Bombay. Not only was practically every member of the Executive Committee of the Girni Kamgar Unon, which was leading the textile strike, included in the arrests, but the capitalist Press openly noted and commented that the arrests were made just prior to and in preparation for the publication of the Government Fawcett Committee Report on the issues in textile dispute, a report which was of such a nature that it was likely to provoke a further strike. This strike actually took place in spite of the arrests.

British Imperialist Policy

The policy underlying the Meerut case has, however, a much wider basis than merely the attempt to stifle industrial unrest. The Meerut arrests are only one of the most significant items in a general offensive of British imperialism, characterised by the display of despotic brutality and by a policy of ruthless repression directed first and foremost against the working class and mass movement rather than against the nationalists.

While the bourgeois nationalists were crowing aloud at their bravery in declaring for independence and a “life and death struggle” against British autocracy, and boasting of the heavy attack that would be made against them, British imperialism has almost contemptuously disregarded them (Gandhi is fined one shilling and sixpence for his defiance of British law in burning foreign cloth in Calcutta) and struck determinedly at its chief enemy. It is a sign of the times that most of the repressive measures recently forced through and most of the vindictive punishments meted out by the courts have been devoted to decapitating and undermining in all possible ways the rising mass movement. Particularly, the object has been to crush the alarming growth of the proletarian revolt before the peasant millions could be set into motion.

The weakness of international labour has played a great part in facilitating the attack against the workers in India. British imperialism has so many fronts on which to fight that its success on one immediately enables it to adopt stronger measures on another. The temporary defeat of the Chinese revolution, and especially the “industrial peace” surrender of the British workers and their obedient support for the policy of imperialism in India, participation in the Simon Commission, &c., have been important factors in making possible the present campaign of terror. Additional security has been furnished by the successful destruction of the dangerous development of independence in Afghanistan, by the obtaining of allies among the most reactionary feudal elements in India with the proposal to create an Indian “Ulster” out of the so-called “Native States,” and by the absence of effective opposition from the Indian bourgeois nationalist movement.

The Indian bourgeois nationalists, their fears of the mass movement being greater than their opposition to foreign imperialism, have retreated in proportion as the proletariat has advanced and they have been only half-hearted in their resistance to the imperialist attack. They allowed the passage of the Trades Disputes Act, and even the Public Safety Bill was only rejected by the intervention of the President in the Assembly. The Government is sufficiently secure in its power to be able to take such a step as the postponement of the Indian elections without great outcry.

The plans of imperialism have been well-laid. After the challenge of the Simon Commission, which provoked the nationalists to do their worst and exposed it as nothing so terrible after all, the imperialist rulers proceeded to deal with the greater menace. The brutal suppression of strikes last year, by victimisation of leaders, free use of police and military forces, wholesale arrests and imposition of heavy sentences on various charges (as in the case of the Bauria jute workers and the ten-year sentences on the leaders of the South India railway strike), prepared the way for the campaign against the “Communist menace,” in which even the Viceroy was made a propagandist, and the subsequent legislation and “conspiracy trial.” At the same time less direct means have also been employed in order to guide working-class activity into safe channels, notably by encouragement of the reformists and, particularly, the appointment of the Whitley Royal Commission on Indian Labour.

These plans are being carried forward and even extended by the British Labour Government. The “conspiracy of silence” on India during the election was a guarantee, if any were needed, given by the Labour Party, that they would faithfully carry on the work of imperialism if they were given the responsibility. Their Government is still only a few days old, yet it has already implemented its pledges by adding another victim to the Meerut trial, a young English journalist about whom there could be no pretence that he was an agent of the Communist International, but who, at the sight of the Government terror in Bombay, had dared to raise his voice in protest and come out in defence of the workers. It has continued the arrest of workers, intensified repression in Bombay, and further attacked the few working-class organs still being published.

Class-Conscious Nationalism

The events of the last two years have provided an interesting test of the class alignment of the different sections of the bourgeois nationalist movement. Its main representative, the Indian National Congress, although sometimes termed “extremist” in comparison with the loyalists and liberals who, in the main, support British rule, is dominated by the bigger bourgeois elements, but contains a mixture of elements in its membership ranging from big landlords and capitalists down to petty clerks and pauperised intellectuals. It has very few proletarians in its ranks. The heterogeneity of its social composition has given rise to a complicated variety of tendencies within it, but the struggle between them becomes more and more concentrated round the chief cleavage—for the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie or for the proletariat and peasantry.) The reconciling of these interests is becoming increasingly difficult, and the radical section is being driven to follow the lead of the proletariat and even to the support of Communism, often in spite of itself.

Taken as a whole, the bourgeois nationalist movement is on the decline, because it can no longer lead the struggle of the whole nation, and it is adopting a more definitely class-conscious hostile attitude towards the proletarian struggle. A year and a half ago, the wave of indignation against the Simon Commission, seemed to have put an end to the decline which followed the collapse of non-co-operation in 1922. The Madras Session of the National Congress, in December, 1927, reflected the new orientation of the national struggle, consciously directed against imperialism, as seen in the resolution for complete independence, the resolution against British imperialism and imperialist war preparations and the support given to the League against Imperialism). We pointed out at the time, however, that these resolutions were adopted by the old leaders rather as a means of holding the allegiance of the somewhat rebellious rank and file and of preventing the leadership being taken out of their hands, than from any intention of prosecuting a revolutionary policy.

The truth of this has now been borne out. The masses have not been drawn into the Congress; even against the Simon Commission the severest limits were set on mass demonstrations. The heralded rejuvenation of the bourgeois nationalist movement has come to nothing. There has not even been a marked improvement in the dwindling numerical strength of the Congress ranks. Some figures recently given to Gandhi, on the occasion of his visit, by the Congress organisation of the Nellore district, north of Madras, are fairly typical. In 1921, they had 10,000 members and collected nearly 16,000 rupees for the Congress funds. In 1922, after the debacle, their membership dropped to about 4,000 and their collections to 2,000 rupees. Since then their finance has dwindled year by year. In 1926, it was 445 rupees; in. 1927 there was a slight increase, but by 1928 it was down to the lowest level of 278 rupees, and the membership was about 250.

In the face of the aggressive attitude of the British Government there has been forced a confession of the unreality of the anti-imperialist gestures of the Congress. Already, at the Calcutta session last December, the independence resolution was virtually abrogated, and although the actual adoption of Dominion status as a goal was accompanied by the most extravagant threats of mass civil disobedience in 1930, not even their sponsors took these seriously. The Independence League, which started with such a flourish of trumpets, is practically dead. It has carried out no mass activities, it has hardly held a meeting. Its president, Srinivasa Iyengar, has resigned from it, and has jumped straight into the camp of the liberal Right Wing, raising anew the old cry of the “responsive co-operators,” who left the Congress in 1925 and 1926, that it was necessary that Congress members in the Legislative Councils should be free to accept Ministerships under the dyarchy system. This demand was put forward by Madras representatives at the All-India Congress Committee in May, 1927, and was only dropped because of the postponing of the elections by the Government.

The reversion to Liberalism was implicit in the acceptance of the Nehru Report, based as it was on the voluntary limitation of the demands of the Congress to the maximum acceptable to the Right-Wing nationalists outside. On this basis some of the latter have rejoined or been recruited into the Congress, and proposals were being actively made for common action in the elections. In Bombay a committee was appointed which included alongside of the Congress leaders, such men as Jinnah (the Muslim leader of the “independents” in the Assembly), and Jayaker (one of those who left the Congress on the “responsive co-operation” issue). It is not unlikely that the old reactionary, Pundit Malaviya, will be chosen as next year’s Congress president.

Most significant of all is the growing sharpness of the anti-working-class attitude adopted by even many of the younger leaders. The talk about support of the mass movement and labour organisation remains as much a phrase as ever. In spite of all the pious mention of it in innumerable speeches and articles, there has not been even the simplest practical step, such as support for the Bombay strike. The debate on the Public Safety Bill in the Assembly, which became a discussion about Communism, was practically an invitation by the nationalists to the Government to prosecute the alleged Communists.

The attitude towards the Meerut arrests, as expressed at a number of provincial conferences of Congress organisations, has been revealing. A high-sounding Defence Committee was appointed, but very little has yet been done in giving concrete assistance. Its President, Dr. Ansari, reported:-

In spite of issue of appeal and a thousand letters sent to individuals, the response has been very poor. Rich people had failed in their duty. Now it was for the middle class and the poorer people to come to the rescue. (Liberty, May 19, 1929.)

At the important Bengal Provincial Conference in March, 1929, the president, S. C. Bose, one of the younger “independence” leaders, who led the fight against Gandhi at the Calcutta Congress session, used the Meerut trial to deduce the need for suppressing the difference between revolutionaries and reformists in the Indian working class movement. Incidentally in the same speech he put in a plea for Fascism as well as for Socialism. He announced that the “lessons” of the Meerut arrests were as follows:—

(1) It is necessary to remove all causes of friction between the different sections of labour.
(2) The Whitley Labour Commission ought to be boycotted.
(3) There ought to be closer co-operation between the labour movement and the Congress.

It is worthy of note that earlier in the year, the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee turned down a resolution calling for support of the working-class struggle on the grounds that they were opposed to “class war.”

The Talk of Socialism

In opposition to the anti-working-class attitude of the big leaders, there is an important Left Wing in the Congress which reacts under the influence of the pressure of the mass movement. The conflict between the two wings is becoming more and more definitely a class cleavage. To a certain extent, the Left Wing in the Congress has shared in the repression exercised against the proletarian movement owing to its sympathy with the latter. It is being pulled in two different directions, representing as it does the field of battle in the fight for leadership between the proletarian and bourgeois elements.

As a result of the pressure of the mass movement, a large part of the Left Wing has taken its stand under the banner of “Socialism,” more often expressed as a vague ideal than as connected with any concrete action on behalf of the class struggle. The young Jawaharlal Nehru, Secretary of the National Congress and President of the Trade Union Congress, has led the way in this propagation of socialism in the abstract. The talk of socialism has been particularly marked in the organised nationalist Youth movement, which has developed rapidly of late but is confined to middle-class and petty-bourgeois elements.

To a considerable extent, the talk about socialism on the part of the leaders represents only the same sort of radical claptrap as is talked about independence, and has no greater significance. At the All-Parties Convention which adopted the Nehru Report, the ultra-reformist president of the All-India T.U.C. put forward an agreed resolution of that body in favour of a socialist constitution. The representative of the Political Sufferers Conference (the organisation of political prisoners) also declared for socialism but added “much as we feel strongly on this subject, we do not propose to hamper the work of this Congress.”

One of the outstanding socialist declarations is the resolution passed almost unanimously last April by the United Provinces Political Conference. It runs:—

The following recommendation be made to the All-India Congress Committee. That, in the opinion of the Conference, the great poverty and misery of the Indian people are due, not only to foreign exploitation of India, but also to the economic structure of society which alien rulers support so that their exploitation may continue. In order, therefore, to remove this poverty and misery and to ameliorate the condition of the Indian masses, it is essential to make revolutionary changes in the present economic and social structure of society and to remove the gross inequities that subsist under it. As a first step, it is essential that provision be made for a living wage for every worker and to tax heavily all unearned incomes, and for peasants to have adequate land and be protected from interference of middlemen.

It is interesting to notice that this resolution, minus the last sentence, was passed by the A.I.C.C. in May, 1929.

At the Sind Conference, in May, 1929, the President was Mr. Chaman Lal, who is able to combine a reputation for extremism with securing such marks of official favour as being appointed on to the Government Whitley Commission. He spoke in favour of socialism, and proposed co-operative purchase of the land which will be made available for cultivation by the new Sukkur barrage. The Bombay Chronicle, the leading organ of bourgeois nationalism in Bombay, has an interesting comment. It begins its leading article with the words:—

Socialism is in the air. For months past, socialistic principles have been preached in India at various conferences, especially those of peasants and workmen.

It sees no hope of realisation, even of Chaman Lal’s “mild Socialistic” scheme, but it remarks with great frankness:—

It is, however, good for the classes to assure the masses that they would not continue to be exploited under Swaraj.

After this candid confession, it considers the practical application and finds it in

carrying out the constructive programme of the Congress. That programme; Khaddar in particular, is nothing if not socialistic in the best sense of the term.

These comments are representative of the nationalist Press. We have here a curious phenomenon where the representatives of bourgeois interests are found supporting a typical example of what Marx called “feudal socialism.” In general, translation of socialist aims into practical support of a reactionary programme is inevitable when the nationalists who profess them are not ready to take action in support of the class struggle actually being waged by the workers and peasants.

The Working-Class Struggle

In spite of the hammer blows directed against it, the Indian proletariat is not only unsubdued, but is still advancing. The fight of the Bombay textile workers has the most tremendous significance for the future. It shows in the clearest form the development towards independent class leadership of the working-class struggle which is the most important tendency now arising.

Through bitter experience, amid incredible hardships, the Bombay workers are winning through to taking full charge of their own struggle. In 1924, it was almost surprising when some of them refused to accept the counsel of the middle-class nationalists who negotiated on their behalf. In 1929, they have not only repudiated the reformist trade union leaders, but they have built up their own organisation with a factory committee basis. All efforts to smash them have failed. They have scorned the manoeuvres of the reformists and deserted the always stagnant textile union, run by the reformist General Secretary of the T.U.C. which has now hardly 6,000 members. The Bombay riots represented a provocation on a large scale, which failed to entangle them. The repression, arrest of all their leaders, drafting in of troops, introduction of “curfew” and martial law has failed to intimidate them. They have carried on the strike against all odds, and yet they were ready also to levy themselves for the support of the Meerut prisoners.

The second feature of the present period is the growth of political consciousness and emancipation from the political domination of bourgeois nationalism. In spite of illiteracy, isolation, &c., the workers are adopting Communist revolutionary working-class aims. Their demonstrations are being made with such slogans as “Down with Imperialism” and “A Soviet Republic for India.” The march of the workers to the Congress Session in Calcutta last December, when they were met by the lathis of the Congress “volunteers,” whom they brushed aside to take possession of the meeting tent, was a significant sign of the contrast between the two movements.

Clearer political consciousness brings also a sharper fight with Reformism. When the Trade Union Congress leaders, Joshi and Bakhale, come out openly as strike-breakers in the present Bombay mill strike, their real role can no longer be misunderstood. The trade union reformist leaders work hand in with the nationalists for industrial peacee. For some time past, such notorious agents of British reformism as Kirk, in Madras, and Indians like Shiva Rao, with the encouragement and support of the British T.U.C., have called for the expulsion of “reds” from the trade unions in India. Naturally, they look almost with complacency on the Meerut arrests and use it to further their propaganda.

The nationalist attitude is to seek to prevent “class war” in the interests of Indian industry. The following quotation from the leading article of the foremost nationalist paper in Calcutta, on the treacherous settlement by S. C. Bose, of the strike of the Tata iron and steel workers last year, is a frank admission of this viewpoint. It remarks:—

It was the recognition of the importance of a flourishing national industry struggling for a place under the sun that induced S.C. Bose to sacrifice much of his valuable time in promoting cordial relations between labour and capital at Jamshedpur. (Liberty, May i8, 1929.)

The alliance of British and Indian reformism is becoming still more clear. British imperialism seeks to crush the struggle of the Indian workers, not for the sake of Indian industry, but because of the revolutionary menace to British imperialism involved in it. In their actions they are ably seconded by the General Council of the British T.U.C., as well as by the Labour Party, as seen in the recent falsified and anti-working-class communications issued by the T.U.C.

Against all these enemies, the Indian workers are engaged in a severe and difficult fight. The path towards building up their independent organisations in alliance with the peasants’ movement is beset with obstacles. The campaign of terrorism has succeeded in breaking down the organisation of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party. Already, before the arrests, it was showing signs of weakness owing to the variety of class interests it attempted to represent and the mixture of semi-reformist and class-conscious elements within it. The attack against it has shown that it is not a mass party and does not fulfil the needs of the proletariat. It is inevitable that in spite of the repression, and partly because of it, the workers will advance towards the formation of a firmly-based revolutionary Communist Party.

It is not possible to deal here with the development of the peasant movement. Numerous partial struggles and other signs point to the approach of a critical situation. At the present time, the workers in India are advancing in the face of a world of enemies. When they succeed in allying themselves with the peasants, they will have a support which will make them irresistible.