Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 4, April 1923, No. 4, pp. 218-228.
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML 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 thirty-seventh annual session of the Indian National Congress met in the last week of December, 1922, at the picturesque pilgrimage place of Gaya, in the province of Behar. No more appropriate place could have been selected, for Gaya is the traditionally sacred spot in which to offer up Pinda (sacrifices) to the lingering ghosts of the departed dead, and so release them from the last earthly bond, that they may journey towards Nirvana or seek rebirth. The fifteen thousand or more political pilgrims that wended their way on foot, bullock-cart, or steam car to the holy spot to attend the Congress session were, perhaps, unconscious of the fact that their eager pilgrimage to Gaya was to offer involuntary Pinda to the dear departed but lingering ghost of Gandhism, famous to the world as Non-Violent Non-Co-operation based upon Soul-Force—but such was, nevertheless, the fact. According to Hindu custom, after a definite period of mourning for the dear departed is over, the Sradh ceremony is performed, consisting of a feast given to all the friends and relatives of the deceased. The Sradh at Gaya marks the close of a definite period in the Indian Nationalist movement—the preparatory period inevitably characterised by confusion of ideas and mistakes in tactics, but valuable for the political lessons to be deduced therefrom. The new period that lies ahead was inaugurated upon the funeral ashes of the old.
The social and economic background of the thirty-seventh National Congress was wide as the poles asunder from that which marked its predecessor at Ahmedabad the year before. A full year had rolled away without the slightest approach of the promised Swaraj. Mahatma Gandhi and twenty-five thousand faithful followers fill the Government “hotels” as a reward for having followed the injunctions of Non-Violent Non-Co-operation based upon Soul-Force. The middle classes, once the vanguard of the National movement, are divided among themselves and weak in their counsels as to the future course to follow. Boycott of schools and law courts, depending on them for fulfilment, have been an acknowledged failure; boycott of foreign cloth and liquor shops, and the propagation of Khaddar and Charka (homespun and hand-weaving), which depended on the masses for fulfilment, have equally failed, not for lack of goodwill or loyalty to the imprisoned Mahatma but from sheer economic disability of the starving workers and peasants to pay higher prices and work longer hours in the sacred but abstract name of Patriotism. The chief clauses of the “Constructive Programme,” adopted at Bardoli in February, 1922, just after the riot of Chauri Chaura, which urged the prosecution of the triple boycott while suspending indefinitely the declaration of civil disobedience and non-payment of taxes as well as the use of all aggressive tactics, have had the ultimate effect of damping the enthusiasm of the masses for the national cause and of withdrawing from it the backbone of mass-energy, while at the same time giving free play to the forces of Government repression, let loose in all their vigour since the departure of the Prince of Wales from Indian soil.
Meanwhile, what of the masses of whom everyone in India, politically-minded or otherwise, has learned to speak? “Back to the villages” has become the slogan of every shade of political opinion. It would seem that this new and potent force in Indian national life, the hitherto dumb and inarticulate workers and peasants, has become a pawn in the political game, waged heretofore between the Government and the middle classes. How otherwise to explain this eagerness to reach the “masses”; the sudden zeal for organisation and propaganda on the part of Congress-wallahs; the equally sudden desire to rush remedial legislation through unwilling Legislatures, on the part of the Government, to somewhat better the condition of rack-rented peasantry and sweated factory hands?
The thirty-seventh annual session of the Indian National Congress met this year upon a background of comparative industrial calm, broken by sporadic strikes of a purely isolated and economic nature, in no way comparable with the fever of industrial unrest which displayed itself in political strikes and national hartals during the corresponding period of last year. But it met at the same time in a period of intense organising activity on the part of the working masses, of the slow but persistent growth of trade unionism and co-operative effort, of industrial and economic conferences and efforts at federating the loosely-scattered labour organisations whose number and influence have immensely multiplied within the preceding twelvemonth.
Three events bade fair to disturb the harmony of the prospective solemnities of the Congress, and a fourth actually obtruded itself upon the Congress meditations, forcing some recognition from the mourners there assembled of present-day actualities in the land of the living. We refer first to the publication in November of the report of the Civil Disobedience Committee, which declared the country to be unfit for the inauguration of mass Civil Disobedience, including non-payment of taxes, but recommended by an evenly-split vote the reconsideration of the boycott of the Reform Councils, with the object of contesting the elections to be held in the spring of 1924. The second discordant note was struck by no less a person than the President-elect of the Congress, Mr. C.R. Das, newly-released from six months’ confinement in gaol, who after the report of the Civil Disobedience Committee, saw fit to deliver himself of two speeches which set the whole country by the ears. In addition to echoing the heresy of Council-entry, qualified with the object of “ending or mending them,” the Deshbandhu (Friend of the Country) startled his compatriots and the bureaucracy alike by enunciating such heresies as the following:—
“I do not want that sort of Swaraj which will be for the middle classes alone. I want Swaraj for the masses, not for the classes. I do not care for the bourgeoisie. How many are they? Swaraj must be for the masses, and must be won by the masses.” (Speech at Dehra Dun, November 1, 1922.)
A few weeks later he published a “Mass” programme in his daily vernacular organ the Bangalar Katha, which declared for the constructive programme and election to the Reform Councils, and stressed the necessity for organising labour and peasant societies as a means to declare a national strike and enforce nonpayment of taxes for the final winning of Swaraj, which vague term he recommended should be defined by a National Committee.
Excitement and speculation were still bubbling over the Deshbandhu’s heresies to orthodox Gandhism when a third event on the very eve of the Congress plunged the entire nation into a fever of fright and bewilderment. This was the cabling out to India by Reuter, evidently under Government orders, of the complete programme of Social Democracy drawn up for the consideration of the National Congress by the exiled “Vanguard” Party in Europe. The cabled document was published in almost the entire Indian press, Official, Moderate, and Nationalist, on December 21, 22, and 23, the comments thereon extending over the entire week that preceded the opening of the National Congress at Gaya. The object of the Government in this spectacular move was to alienate the Moderates by the spectre of Bolshevism, and to frighten the Congress, and especially Mr. Das’s party, out of any discussion that might remotely resemble the “Vanguard” programme. Both these designs were successful. The landlords and Moderates rallied most satisfactorily to the side of “law and order,” and the Nationalists busily tried to whitewash themselves of any suspicion that they might faintly approve of such rash republican ideas.
Needless to say the “Vanguard” programme, though it might have been in the hearts of some, found no one to sponsor it in the national conclave, but thanks to the crude advertisement given by the Government its text was known to the entire country. That its clauses of social and economic reform, such as the eight-hour day, the confiscation of large estates for redistribution among the landless peasantry, and the nationalisation of public utilities, remained undiscussed proves the crime of the Congress to be one of deliberate commission rather than omission.
Certain outstanding figures in the Congress may be taken as symbolic of the tendencies that direct the current of national life in India to-day. The voice of Mr. C.R. Das, expressing the ideals and aspirations of the liberal Indian intelligentzia, struggling to free itself from the social and economic interests of the bourgeoisie; opposed to him, the colourless figure of Mr. C. Rajagopalacharia, the “deputy-Mahatma,” expounding the principles and dogmas of “pure Gandhism,” and personifying the reactionary spirit of lower-middle-class extremism, sounding the death-knell to progress and scurrying to cover at the slightest hint of revolution. The voice of bourgeois radicalism, speaking in the person of N.C. Kelker, the leader of the Maharashtra school of political rationalism, opposed to the metaphysical reactionaries of orthodox Nationalism and temporarily allied with the liberal intellectuals of the Left Wing in their common fight against the stand-patters of the Centre, who still commanded an overwhelming majority.
These were the voices of definite organised groups, representing the needs and more or less conscious aspirations of an entire class. There were other voices, less distinct and not so clearly heard, but nevertheless symbolic of rising social forces destined to dominate the sittings of future congresses—the voice of P.K. Mazumdar, echoing that of Hazrat Mohani at Ahmedabad, demanding that Swaraj be defined as “complete independence without foreign connection by the people of India by all legitimate and proper means.” Here spoke the new school of radical Republicanism, new as yet to India, but corresponding to the unexpressed desires and needs of a vast section of the people. Fainter still, and heard for the first time within the Indian National Congress, spoke the voice of the workers and landless peasants, through the lips of the venerable Mr. Singaravelu Chettiar, of Madras, who introduced himself, amid the cheers and laughter of the assembled delegates, as “an Indian Communist,” and who urged upon the Congress the necessity of making common cause with labour to bring about a national strike so as to get rid of the domination both of the Government and of the bourgeoisie. Communists throughout the world, he assured his brother delegates, were with India in her battle for freedom. In a manifesto issued just before the Congress, Mr. Singaravelu stressed the necessity of adopting an economic programme which would include the immediate grievances of the Indian workers and peasants within its scope.
The great struggle between the two contending parties within the Congress, the Right and Left Wings combined against the Centre, apparently hung upon the burning issue of Council-entry—whether or not the Congress Party should change its tactics and contest the coming elections to the Government Reform Councils. But the real issue lay deeper, and was tersely expressed in the popular names given to the respective factions, viz., the parties of “Pro-Change “ and of “No-Change.” Whether or not the Congress should exercise the right of private judgment upon the mistakes and failures of the past year, and reverse the programme and tactics sanctified by the benediction of Mahatma Gandhi, proven wrong by time and trial—or whether it should follow blindly the dictates of the Mahatmaji throughout the time of his incarceration, regardless of opinions to the contrary—this was the real issue of the struggle at Gaya. Every resolution brought before the house was represented in this spirit by loyal followers of orthodox Gandhism, and was voted upon in this form. “Change or No-Change,” “Love and Loyalty to the martyred Mahatma or Treason to his sacred Memory”—thus was every question formulated and thus was it decided where every vote cast was a Pinda offered to the beloved memory of the revered Mahatmaji. Orthodox Gandhism scored a complete and overwhelming victory, but for all that orthodox Gandhism is dead, and what transpired at Gaya was merely the respectful offering of friends and relatives to the lingering ghost of the deceased.
A study of the resolutions accepted and rejected during the five days’ Congress deliberations reveals the nature of the struggle that has raged within the ranks of the Non-Co-operators throughout the past eight months. It is the struggle between the past and the present, between the dead and the living, between reaction and progress, which resulted in the temporary and illusive triumph of the former over the latter. The orthodox No-Changers rejected all the recommendations which their own Civil Disobedience Committee had recommended—the withdrawal of the boycott of law courts and schools—and reaffirmed their faith in these confessedly moribund tactics. The recommendation of the same Committee to boycott British, as opposed to merely “foreign” cloth, brought forward as a resolution before the Congress, was likewise rejected on the grounds that the specific boycott of British goods implied a hatred foreign to the doctrine of Non-Violence and Love. The main bone of contention, that of Council-entry, was debated exclusively from the point of view, on the part of the orthodox No-Changers, as to whether Mahatma Gandhi would sanction such a departure from the policy laid down by him at Ahmedabad and confirmed at Calcutta. In the words of Mr Rajagopalacharia:—
“The Congress should remember that no great change from the present programme could be recommended by any but the wisest and greatest of leaders. It is not possible for small men to ask the Congress to take a line different from what this house, sitting at Calcutta decided after careful consideration.”
There were other resolutions lost, of equal if not more importance to that of Council-entry, which was stressed far beyond its due. The resolution presented last year by Hazrat Mohani, now in gaol, demanding a change in the Congress programme by declaring the goal of the Indian people to be the attainment of independence outside the British Empire, “by all possible and proper means,” was presented again this year at Gaya by the spokesmen of his party, which appears to have grown considerably in the past twelve months. Needless to say, the resolution was lost by an overwhelming majority, but the number of votes cast for it was larger than last year, and the speeches made in favour were more outspoken. The annual appearance of such a resolution denotes the growth of that hitherto rara avis in the constitutional Congress movement—a party of radical republicanism.
Manifestly in order to show that the No-Change party still asserted its right to give a lead to the people, and as a counter-irritant to the contagious cry of Council-entry, the Congress majority adopted two last-minute resolutions which would be laughable were they not so pathetic in their inadequacy. One was on Civil Disobedience—ambiguously worded and vague in portent, but launched as a possible objective so soon as the faithful followers should complete the preliminary requirements, viz., the collection of twenty-five lakhs of rupees (about £170,000) for the Tilak Swaraj Fund, and the enrolment of 50,000 volunteers, pledged to Non-violent Non-Co-operation and the fulfilment of the constructive programme. The resolution on Civil Disobedience, passed against the unanimous recommendation of the Civil Disobedience Committee appointed by the Congress, is one of those anomalies which can only be explained by a study of the psychology of the No-Changers. The very men who had most loudly cried down the use of this weapon as “dangerous,” now proposed its adoption and. carried the resolution successfully through the hypnotised Congress. It was meant less as a threat to the Government than as a bribe to the sensation seeker. But the Congress has cried, Wolf! Wolf!” too often for either the Government or people to pay heed. The resolutions affirming the boycott of schools and law courts, and providing for a conditional declaration of Civil Disobedience (which is to be individual and not mass), were best described by the Pro-change Press as “whipping a dead horse.”
The other last-minute resolution thrown as a sop to the sensation-monger bordered less on the Bolshevik, as described by the Anglo-Indian Press, than on the lunatic, taking into consideration the nature of the element which proposed it. It declared:—
The Congress hereby repudiates the authority of the legislatures in future to raise any loan or incur any liabilities on behalf of the nation, and notifies to the world that, on the attainment of Swarajya, the people of India, though holding themselves liable for all debts and liabilities rightly or wrongly incurred hitherto by the Government, will not hold themselves bound to repay any loans or discharge any liabilities incurred on and after this date on the authority of the so-called legislatures brought into existence in spite of the national boycott.
This heroic gesture of defiance before the Government, the Councils, and the world was presented on the last day of the Congress without having been fully discussed in the Subjects Committee, where it was proposed for the first time late on the previous night, and in the absence of some of the leaders. Mr. Rajagopalacharia himself, who proposed the resolution, seemed a little amazed at his own temerity in departing so far from the footsteps of the Mahatmaji, and made little effort to support his point in the face of opposing speeches, which stigmatised the resolution as “non-moral, to say the least.” But his faithful followers, trained to obedience, voted blindly in favour, and to the great surprise of everybody present the resolution was overwhelmingly adopted. By this dictum the petty bourgeoisie, represented by the Congress patriots, have driven another nail into their own coffin, since who among the financiers, whether foreign or native, now investing their capital in India will be interested in having come to power a class which has beforehand repudiated the principal and interest on those investments?
The only other noteworthy resolution adopted by the Congress was that approving the organisation of Indian labour “with a view to improve and promote their well-being and secure them their just rights, and also to prevent the exploitation of Indian labour and Indian resources.” This resolution was passed unanimously, it being the fashion in Congress as well as other circles to talk about the “masses,” and a Committee on Labour Organisation was appointed “to assist the Executive Council of the All-India Trade Union Congress for the organisation of Indian labour, both agricultural and industrial.” A similar resolution was passed by the Congress two years ago at Nagpur, but nothing came of it. It remains to be seen whether the present resolution will be taken more literally.
The Congress ended, as was to be expected, in a split between the forces of the living from those which clung to the dead past. Mr. C.R. Das and his followers, on the termination of the Congress session, issued a manifesto announcing the formation within the Congress ranks of the “Congress Khilafat Swaraj Party,” based upon “the attainment of Swaraj by all peaceful and legitimate means, working on the principle of Non-violent Non Co-operation.” Mr. Das resigned his presidency of the Congress on the ground that his views did not coincide with those of the majority, but declared his party would continue to work within the Congress until the majority were converted to their viewpoint, meanwhile reserving the right to follow those tactics which seemed best to them. The Executive of the new party numbers among it such men as Mr. C.R. Das, President, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Motilal Nehru, V.J. Patel, N.C. Kelker, M.R. Jayakar, C.S. Ranga Iyer, V. Abhayankar, &c., &c., names which speak volumes to those even slightly acquainted with the Indian nationalist movement.
It means that the Left, represented by C.R. Das and the liberal intellectuals, has temporarily joined forces with the Right—that school of rationalist politicians who have long since headed a revolt away from Congress leading-strings back into the ranks of the co-operating Moderates, and whose philosophy of nationalism is summed up in the phrase “Responsive Co-operation.” The new party, which met at the end of January to draw up a programme and line of action, has not yet published the result of its deliberations, which covered such questions as the formation of a Pan-Asiatic Federation (to supplant Pan-Islamism), boycott of British goods, and participation in elections to the Reform Councils. A committee is at work drawing up a tentative scheme of Swaraj, which the new party has set itself the task of defining, and will place before the country for discussion and approval through the press and platform. The scheme includes the main points set forth in Das’s presidential address before the thirty-seventh National Congress, viz.: (1) The formation of local autonomous centres on the lines of the ancient Indian village system, integrated into a loosely-federated national unit; (2) the residuary power of control to remain in the hands of the Central Government, so exercised as to interfere least with the local autonomy of the integrated village units.
In view of Mr. Das’s reiterated insistence on the importance of attaining “Swaraj for the masses and not for the classes,” which raised such a clamour in the British and Indian Press, and led to his being stigmatised as “Bolshevik,” the specific declaration of the first convention of the new party on the rights of private property, has a double interest and significance. The members declare that “private and individual property will be recognised and maintained, and the growth of individual wealth, both movable and immovable, will be permitted.” This frank declaration of class-affiliation and class-consciousness betokens more than the mere winning over of Mr. Das and the school of liberal intellectuals to the protection of bourgeois property rights. It shows the rapid crystallisation of ideology in the Indian national struggle, and the presence of a predominating bourgeois element, determined to protect its class-interests from the very outset against the rising flood-tide of mass-energy that may some day find an outlet in revolution.