Evelyn Roy

The Crisis in Indian Nationalism

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. II, February 1922, No. 2.
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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 Indian National Congress, the political organ of the extremist party, which met in full session during the week of Christmas, is confronted with a dilemma on whose solution its future existence as a fighting body will depend. Violence or non-violence; continued leadership of the masses or surrender to the Bureaucracy,—these are the two horns on which the delegates to the Congress found themselves impaled.

The present crisis, which is the outcome of the Non-cooperation campaign of the extremist nationalists and the policy of repression recently adopted by the Government, has been brought to a head by the visit of the Prince of Wales to India and the startling demonstration of power afforded by the boycott of the royal visitor and the more or less complete Hartal, or general strike, of the Indian people, which greeted his arrival in every large city.

The new Viceroy, Lord Reading, who was sent out to India to control the most difficult and delicate situation in the history of that country, announced his advent as the coming of a rule of “justice, law and order.” The non-violent Non-co-operation campaign, headed by Mr. Gandhi and the Congress Party, for the attainment of Swaraj, or Self-Government, was in full swing, and the Viceroy adopted a policy of watchful waiting for the first six months, in order to study the situation thoroughly before venturing upon a positive line of action. It was the opinion of the Anglo-Indian bureaucracy that the movement would run itself into the ground and die of its own contradictions, and the many mistakes and failures of the tactics adopted seemed to justify this expectation. The boycott of the army, the schools and of Government offices and titles had, on the whole, proved abortive, despite some distinguished exceptions; while the boycott of foreign cloth and the revival of hand-spinning and weaving was, on the face of it, an economic impossibility bound to end in failure. The concrete achievements of the Non-co-operation movement were few, but important, and ignored by the Bureaucracy until too late to prevent them. They consisted in the successful collection of a National Fund of one crore rupees (equivalent to one million pounds), the registration of ten million members of the Congress Party, and the building-up of a nation-wide organisation for propaganda purposes, which the Nationalist Movement had never before had, and whose all-embracing activities swept the great mass of the people, intellectuals, petty bourgeoisie, peasants and city—proletariat alike,—within its scope.

The greatest unifying force for all these heterogeneous elements of discontent was, in the early days of the movement, the personality of Mr. Gandhi, whose Tolstoyan philosophy of non-resistance, together with his stainless personal life and long record of public service, endeared him to all classes of the population alike. It was to the “Mahatma” or Great Soul, as Mr. Gandhi was universally known, that the astute Lord Reading addressed himself in his first effort to sound the depth of the movement and to check its rampant career. Mr. Gandhi’s ready consent to travel to Simla for an interview with the Viceroy of the Government, which he and his followers had so uncompromisingly boycotted, proved him to be more of a saint than a politician, and it was inevitable that in this first contest between the Non-co-operators and the authorities, that the former should be worsted. Lord Reading obtained from the Mahatma a promise that the two Ali brothers would make a public apology for certain alleged speeches inciting the Indian people to violence,—and the Mahatma received the assurance that, for the time being, the Government would drop its intended prosecution of the two brothers for seditious utterances.

The apology was duly delivered and heralded to India and to the world as the capitulation to legal authority of the two hottest defenders of Indian Nationalism. It is hard to say who suffered more in prestige by this unfortunate bargain with the “satanic” Government—Mr. Gandhi or the Ali brothers, who were accused by their opponents and followers, alike of compromise and cowardice. It was the first triumph of the Government, and Lord Reading saw his way clear ahead of him.

Mr. Gandhi frankly admitted he had made another “Himalayan” mistake in his zeal for peace, and the Ali brothers, loyal to their leader, but resentful of the charge of cowardice, started a campaign of invectives against the Government and invited their own arrest. The public mind having been prepared for this eventuality to two of their dearest idols, and Mr. Gandhi having abjured everyone to abstain from all public manifestations or show of resistance, the Government proceeded to arrest the Ali brothers and five other prominent Non-co-operators, and then stayed its hand to see the effect of this move. What would be the response of the Mussulman population to this blow aimed at their leaders? The baffling quiet which prevailed all over India gave satisfaction alike to the Government and the Non-co-operators. Aside from a few protest meetings, an occasional strike and several street demonstrations, there was nothing to show that two of India’s most forceful and popular heroes had been arrested and convicted on ordinary criminal charges to two years’ imprisonment. The Government argued that if it was so easy to cut off the heads of the movement, the body could be easily crippled. Mr. Gandhi, on the other hand, proclaimed the national calm as the triumph of soul-force over violence, and the Working Committee of the National Congress announced the programme of Civil Disobedience, including non-payment of taxes and a national boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales to India, scheduled for November.

More arrests followed as a matter of course, together with the prosecution and penalising of nationalist journals for alleged seditious utterances. Non-co-operators went to prison unresisting and rejoicing, and new ones sprang to supplant them. Civil Disobedience, Boycott of foreign cloth, and a National Hartal, or general strike, on the landing of the Prince of Wales, became the popular slogans of the hour. The whole country became a seething volcano of unrest and incipient trouble. Officialdom, at first nonplussed, advised the postponement of the prince’s visit, and it was rumoured that ill-health would prevent his projected trip to India. The open jubilation of the Non-co-operators, and the increased intensity, of their campaign, changed the official mind. It was declared that the royal visit would take place.

It is not by chance that the Prince of Wales, the darling of the royal family and symbol of Britain’s majesty, has been thrown to the angry tigers of Indian Nationalism. The nature of his reception would be a good gauge of the real strength of the movement and of the hold enjoyed by the Congress leaders over the masses. The infinitesimal chance that the Prince would be assassinated by some terrorist, though minimised to almost zero by the elaborate precautions taken, would be run,—the British bourgeoisie is implacable when its interests are at stake. This feeling is well reflected by the Bombay correspondent of the Manchester Guardian who wrote:

The Prince’s visit is not without risks. The days are gone when a royal visit to India was merely a delightful ceremony. In every municipality, the exact measure of hospitality to be shown has been hotly debated. Every act of homage is a real bending of the political will. The warmth of the welcome extended to the Prince will be the gauge of Indian desire for the British connection.

The arrival of the Prince of Wales in Bombay on November 17 was heralded to the world through the medium of the Press as the failure of Non-co-operation and the triumph of India’s loyalty to the British Crown. First accounts conveyed glittering descriptions of the magnificent displays and entertainments given at public expense for the Prince’s reception. But gradually the news leaked out that beyond the area where soldiers and machine-guns ensured the peaceful progress of the Heir to the Throne, there was serious trouble with the population of Bombay. Riots broke out in every part of the city, strikes were declared in all big industries, and the excited and angry populace fell to looting and incendiarism, unmindful of Mr. Gandhi’s prayerful injunction for perfect peace. The Governor issued a Proclamation on the 16th and 17th that “the Government would use all its powers for the maintenance of law and order.” According to the Manchester Guardian, “life in the city was dislocated for four days.” The list of casualties on the day the Prince landed include 83 police wounded, 53 rioters killed and 298 wounded, together with 341 arrests; 160 tramcars were damaged or destroyed; 135 shops were looted and 4 burned down. On the same day, Calcutta celebrated the arrival of the Prince on Indian soil by declaring a complete Hartal for twenty-four hours, and similar action was taken in cities all over India. The spectacular nature of the Calcutta strike is testified to by the Times correspondent, who writes:

From early morning, Congress and Caliphate volunteers appeared on the streets, and, it is no exaggeration to say, took possession of the whole city. The bazaars were closed. Tramcars were stopped. Taxis were frightened off the streets and horse vehicles were nowhere to be seen. There was little open violence, not even a brickbat was thrown at the armoured cars that patrolled the streets. The police looked on and did nothing. The control of the city passed for the whole day into the hands of the Volunteers. At nightfall, electric lights were cut off, and the streets were silent, dark, and deserted. It was like a city of the dead.

Here was a startling manifestation of national solidarity that gave the Government pause for thought. It was an imposing demonstration of the popular will obeying the behests of its leaders. In Ireland people are used to such spectacles, but in India! In the temporary lull that preceded the bursting of the storm, the still, small voice of Mahatma Gandhi was raised crying piteously to Heaven for pardon for the blood that had been shed in Bombay, and calling upon those who had sinned to repent, as he did, by fasting for twenty-four hours out of every week. Poor, misguided, deluded Mahatma Gandhi! In his hesitations and vacillations and hurried flights froth the diplays of mass energy to the retreat of his own conscience is summed up the peculiar predicament of the Indian National Congress as a whole, which is being ground beneath the upper and the nether millstones of Government repression and seething popular unrest, which must find an outlet in violence, unless its economic distress which lies at the bottom of its discontent finds some relief.

The iron heel of authority came down upon the country instantaneously. The Government had had sufficient insight into the depth and strength of the national movement, and it decided to cut at the roots as well as to strike off the heads. Not only was it desired to check the progress of the Non-cooperation movement and to insure a welcome to the Prince,—it was intended also to paralyse the holding of the Indian National Congress, scheduled to meet at Ahmedabad on December 24, at which time Mr. Gandhi had definitely promised to announce the advent of his long-heralded but slightly chimerical Swaraj. More than 500 arrests were made in Calcutta alone. The recruiting and organising of Congress and Caliphate volunteers was declared to be illegal. The principal districts of India were placed under Section 2 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which prohibits “unlawful associations” to such an extent that three persons meeting together in one place are liable to arrest. Naturally, the various Provincial Congress Committees meeting throughout India became unlawful associations, and their members were arrested wholesale. All the principal leaders of the Congress (including its President, C. R. Das; its Secretary, Motilal Nehru; and Lajpat Rai, the fiery leader of the Punjab) have been arrested. The arrest of students and working men acting as pickets, volunteers or strikers, has been legion. The Viceroy stated impressively that “the Government of India are very conscious of their power and their strength. Recent events have made it imperative that the full strength of the Government should be exerted for vindicating the law and preserving order.” Not alone men, but women as well, have fallen under the official ban, and, according to the London Nation, “Bengali ladies have been taking active part in the agitation, and some of them have been lodged in gaol. It would be difficult to exaggerate the social sensation in India caused by Indian ladies being led off to cells.”

Amid this impressive display of force, the Prince continued on his flowery path northward through the various Indian provinces, receiving everywhere the same official welcome which sought to veil the popular disaffection beneath. In the protected Native States he received the warmest reception, thereby demonstrating the British wisdom in perpetuating these feudal puppets as props to their own rule. But his emergence into British India once more was like a cold douche. Allahabad, the capital of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, greeted him, according to the Manchester Guardian, “with what truth compels the admission of as the most effective Hertal yet experienced. The streets were liberally festooned and garlanded, but entirely deserted.” “The silence of Allahabad,” declares the Times, “represents the first occasion on which the fomenters of passive hostility were really successful.” It was an effective answer to the Government repressions that were rapidly flooding the gaols of every Indian city. The arrival of the Prince in Calcutta was to be the acid test, for Bengal has always been the hotbed of rebellion. Four armoured cruisers were anchored outside the harbour, and special battalions of troops were posted in every part of the city, which assumed the appearance of an armed camp. The Prince was to arrive on December 24, the same day on which the Congress would open in Ahmedabad, and in anticipation of his coming, the majority of the workers and the students went on strike, while the lawyers suspended their practice. Arrests reached such a degree that the general public began to protest. Lawyers of the High Court passed a resolution demanding the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act; business men of the United Provinces issued a statement to the Government that the present policy only added fresh recruits to the movement; members of the provincial legislative councils began to resign, and four members of the Imperial Legislative Assembly addressed the Government, urging it to call a halt to futile repression, to formulate some constructive policy which would recognise the amazingly rapid changes occurring in India, and to call a round table conference of all shades of political thought to find a way out of the present deadlock.

Mr. Gandhi, despite repeated pleas to be arrested, continued in freedom, and on the eve of the opening of the Congress, which he declared must be held at any cost and despite the arrest of all its leaders unless the Government dissolve it by force, he issued a Manifesto which, among other things, stated:

Lord Reading must understand that the Non-co-operators are at war with the Government. We want to overthrow the Government and compel its submission to the people’s will. We shall have to stagger humanity, even as South Africa and Ireland, with this exception—we will rather spill our own blood, not that of our opponents. This is a fight to a finish.

This, then, is the situation in India on the eve of the assembling of the National Congress—the gravest situation in living memory. What is the Congress to do? Its tactics of non-violence have come to an end, the mass-energy on which the strength of the Congress movement has rested can no longer be controlled in a crisis, as events in Bombay and elsewhere testify. At the same time, the masses are completely unarmed; they are hopelessly unready for an armed contest for supremacy. If the Congress persists in its doctrine of Soul Force, it will lose the support of the militant workers and peasants, who have dot out of bounds and whose desperate economic condition renders some immediate and practical solution imperative. The Indian working class has lent itself already long enough to Mr. Gandhi’s quixotic chasing of windmills. Non-violence, non-resistance, Soul-Force, boycotts and strikes in the National Cause for a Swaraj that is indefinitely postponed, have weakened their faith in the Prophet, and they find themselves in no way better off. In all their circumlocutions and invectives against foreign rule, the Congress leaders have forgotten or neglected utterly to mention the economic betterment of the Indian workers and peasants, whose energetic support of the Congress Programme of boycott and civil disobedience by riots, strikes, imprisonment and loss of life has constituted the backbone and real strength of the movement. Such systematic repression as the Government of India has launched upon can kill any movement that does not spring from the vital economic needs and desires of the people. If the Congress persists in its present tactics, it will find itself divested of the popular support that gave it such powerful impetus and power, and it will be reduced once more to its former status of a debating society on constitutional progress, by India’s discontented lawyers, doctors and petty-bourgeois intelligentsia. The masses, forced asunder from the political movement by Government persecution and their own waning interest, will take up the economic struggle in good earnest on the purely economic field, leaving politics alone, like the burned child which dreads the fire.

Such a movement is already lender way in India. In the first week of December, 1921, the Second All-India Trade Union Congress was held in Jharria, a little town in the coalfields of Bengal. The Government, busy with its persecutions of the Nationalists, had no time or energy to interfere with it, despite the petition of various Employers’ Associations to prohibit the holding of the Congress. A great coal-strike was in progress, involving some 50,000 miners, numbers of whom attended the Congress in a body, in addition to the regularly constituted delegates, who numbered ten thousand. Something over a million, organised workers were represented from about a hundred different unions. The Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, Mr. Chaman Lal, drew a picture of the economic condition of the Indian working-class, comparing it with European conditions, and declared before the assembled delegates that the continuance of such conditions meant the coming of Bolshevism to India. If the Government and the employers refused to make concessions to labour, the latter would take matters into its own hands. Referring to the political struggle raging throughout India, Chaman Lal declared that only by the help of the organised working-class, India would attain Swaraj within ten years. Resolutions of sympathy for the Russian famine, and a call to the organised working-class of the entire world to abolish wars by international action, were adopted. The most significant outcome of the Congress was the sudden agreement of the coal-mine owners to negotiate with the striking workers as to an increase in wages, a shorter working-day, better housing, medical attendance, etc.,—matters which heretofore they bad refused to discuss.

The All-India Trade Union Congress, which held its first session a year ago, has already become a power in the world of organised labour in India. All the class-conscious elements of the Indian proletariat are included within its ranks. It is fighting for frankly material things, well within the comprehension of the simple, ignorant and oppressed people who belong to it,—better wages, fewer hours, decent housing, sanitation and medical help in time of sickness, with accident, old-age and maternity benefits for workers. There are no political planks in its programme, but the still rebellious working-class, fired with the national enthusiasm, have not yet forgotten the fabulous Swaraj promised them by their Mahatma.

The great question at issue now is, will the centre of gravity of the Indian struggle be shifted from the political to the purely economic field, from the Indian National Congress to the All-India Trade Union Congress, or will the political leaders rise to the occasion and adopt such a programme in the National Congress as will keep the Indian masses behind it in its political fight, by including their economic grievances?

The resolutions adopted in the sessions of the National Congress do not touch upon the vital question of the workers’ economic needs. The 12,000 delegates and visitors, clad in homespun Khaddar and white “Gandhi caps,” eschewed chairs and squatted upon the floor of the huge Pandal or tent, while their leader, the saintly Mahatma, simply dressed in a homespun loin-cloth, issued his appeals for peace from the top of a table upon which he sat cross-legged. His resolution, calling for “aggressive civil disobedience to all Government laws and institutions; for non-violence; for the continuance of public meetings throughout India despite the Government prohibition, and for all Indians to offer themselves peacefully for arrest by joining the Volunteer Corps,” was carried with but ten dissentient votes. The Congress appointed Gandhi as its sole executive authority, with power to name his own successor in case he is arrested, but declared that peace with the Government cannot be concluded without the previous consent of the Congress. A motion introduced by Hazrat Mohani, for complete independence outside the British Empire, to be attained by all “possible and proper,” instead of by all “legitimate and peaceful” means, was opposed by Mr. Gandhi on the ground that it would alienate the sympathy of the Moderates, and the resolution was lost, although a strong minority voted in its favour. “The unity of all classes depends on non-violence,“ said Mr. Gandhi, who seeks to combine Moderates and Extremists, the Indian bourgeoisie and exploited proletariat, or a common but vague programme of political Swaraj.

Mr. Gandhi, who is to-day undoubtedly the Dictator of the Indian Nationalist Movement, will end by falling between two stools, since he cannot for ever, sit on both. The Indian masses demand economic betterment, and their rebellious spirit cannot be contained much longer within the limits of a peaceful political programme which avoids all mention of their economic needs. Already the energies of the more class-conscious are being deflected towards the growing Trade Unions and Peasants’ Co-operatives. The Congress will lose in this element its only revolutionary basis, because the handful of discontented intellectuals who compose the Extremist Party represents neither the interests of the moderate bourgeoisie nor of the conservative landholding class. The recent Governmental repressions have temporarily rallied all classes on the basis of national feeling, and have led even the Moderates to protest and to demand a round-table conference of all shades of opinion, where some, agreement by compromise can be reached. Certain Trade Union leaders also urge such a Conference on the plea that Labour is getting out of hand. The Viceroy agreed, on condition that the Extremists cease their Boycott and other activities and that both sides call a truce pending negotiations. Pundit Malaviya, who represents the Right Wing of the Congress Party, proposed a resolution in the Congress to participate in a round-table conference for the settlement of grievances. Gandhi opposed making the first overtures, and the motion was defeated, but “the door to negotiations was still left open.” “We will talk with the Viceroy only as equals, not as suppliants,” Gandhi declared, and added, “I am a man of peace, but not of peace at any price—only of that peace which will enable us to stand up to the world as free men.”

A definite refusal to compromise, on the part of the Extremists, will mean continued repression by the Government and the alienation of Moderate sympathy; consent to a Conference, on the other hand, means compromise with the Government and alienation of the masses. Which will Mr. Gandhi, Dictator of the Indian National Congress, decide to do?