Bernard Houghton

Indian Mill-Owners Cry Halt!

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 13, June 1931, No. 6 pp. 344-351, (3,669 words)
Transcriptionp: 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.

[We are glad to print the following article as representing an independent view of the Indian situation by a writer whose work is already familiar to LABOUR MONTHLY readers and who is himself an ex-Indian Civil Servant of long standing.—ED.]

The blunder of the Simon Commission convinced the Indian bourgeoisie that paper resolutions in the Congress and speeches in the Councils were not enough, that if they were not under a new constitution to be shut out from power as at present, action was necessary. Lord Birkenhead, it was clear, intended to ride rough-shod not only over the masses of Indians, but over their heads also. Accordingly the Lahore Congress, rising to a high pitch of enthusiasm, endorsed previous resolutions for independence and—this is vital—gave to the Working Committee a mandate to initiate Civil Disobedience. The leadership was again entrusted to Mr. Gandhi, who had returned to politics, regardless of the fact that in 1922 he had brought a similar movement to an ignominious end. Somewhat tardily he selected the salt monopoly as the field for Civil Disobedience.

This monopoly, with its concomitant tax, whilst severely felt by the poverty-stricken masses, does not touch the interests of the Indian Capitalists or landlords. In April, Mr. Gandhi made his famous march to the sea at Dandi, denouncing en route the Government in terms which left nothing to be desired in force or pungency. On making salt he was arrested, not under the Salt Act, which only provides short terms of imprisonment, but under a lettre de cachet. Already there had been outbreaks from the impatient masses, but thenceforward all India became insurgent; it was as though one had applied a match to a powder-magazine.

It was no longer a matter of local rebellion but of a whole nation ranged against its exploiters. Such rebellions there were in several places, especially at Peshawar, Chittagong and Sholapur. The two latter were repressed with ease, the former, which occurred before Mr. Gandhi’s arrest, with some difficulty. Another and independent rising in Burma has, in spite of heavy losses, lasted for months, the rebels taking shelter in the great forests. But, as a whole, the movement confined itself to the non-violent lines prescribed, indeed, for an almost disarmed nation confronted with an army equipped with modern weapons. Imperialism retorted to the movement in characteristic fashion. Open dictatorship, that is, government by ordinance replaced the ordinary law; the Press was muzzled more tightly than ever; imprisonments (to the number of 60,000) batonings and brutalities innumerable became the order of the day.

The plan of the Labour Government, confronted with the failure of the Simon Conference, had been simple. It was to call a Conference in London with leading Indians, and in the meantime to keep the country quiet with a vague promise of Dominion Status. The latter proved a damp squib—Indians had been deceived too often. The Conference, though the alarmed Viceroy pressed for an earlier date, took place in November. Its members, with expenses paid on a lavish scale, consisted partly of a number of Indian Princes and partly of various landlords, big capitalists and others nominated by Simla and by the various local Governments, carefully selected so as to accentuate sectarian divisions. The Nationalist leaders refused to attend, probably because the bourgeoisie as a whole considered that an intransigent attitude might gain better terms. Besides, the popular movement was then far too strong to permit of a halt.

Since the Congress with the mass of Indians stood aloof, the Conference could only be a preliminary one, but it served to outline the imperialist plan. This consists of three parts, (1) the so-called Federation of India, with a large number of Princes in both Chambers at Delhi; (2) nominal provincial autonomy and nominal responsibility at Delhi; (3) Safeguards.

Federation the scheme is not. It merely dilutes both houses with 25 or 33 per cent. of born reactionaries, bound by the strongest of ties, self-interest, to the maintenance of British rule, and thus seeks to paralyse these bodies as agents of the popular will. Imperialism, which in Europe seeks the friendship of a Mussolini, a Pilsudski or a Horthy, in India clasps to itself these survivals from a world that is dead. Already the bureaucracy are looking on these Princes, the last allies of Imperialism on Indian soil, in the light of a body-guard for themselves. The Princes for their part have made it clear that they will stand or fall with Britain, which objectively is true enough. Patiala has added that they will sacrifice everything, if need be, for the maintenance of the imperial connection. As for their own subjects, they declare, almost in Lord Curzon’s words, that they will be the sole judges of any change.

Provincial autonomy and responsibility at the centre are made dead letters by the provision of safeguards, of which indeed the Princes are the first. With the army as now under the Viceroy, with some four-fifths of the revenue at his disposal, with dictatorial powers in reserve and other provisions, the self-government of India is reduced to a farce. The method followed has been that of the Montagu Reforms, to take away with your left hand what you give with your right. The fact that the army remains under the Viceroy alone suffices to nullify the whole constitution, as the example of Egypt proves.

Not a very inviting prospect, it may be thought, to hold out to the Indian bourgeoisie and its organ the Congress, even though garnished with many unctuous phrases. The gulf between such a Constitution and Dominion Status, not to say Independence was so deep that by no dint of sophistry or special pleading could any sort of connexion be established. However, the Imperialists determined to essay it, adding as an inducement that the venue of further conversations would be in India.

To understand what follows, glance for a moment at the problem of the Indian bourgeoisie. A rising capitalist class in order to gain power must first conquer the ruling class of landlords or, as in India, of foreigners. This aim being unattainable of its own strength, it must perforce call in the help of the mass of the people, the workers and peasants, using for this purpose slogans which appeal to all. A place in the sun once achieved it becomes of course necessary to damp down the popular movement lest haply it become overstrong and power pass to the people. Such was the strategy of the British bourgeoisie after the bloodless revolution, of 1832, such that of the German bourgeoisie after that of 1918. This, then, is the problem of the Indian capitalists, led, like those in Britain a century ago, by the textile millowners. They aim to secure a Government under their control as far as their own interests are concerned, through which they can shut out their rivals in Lancashire and Japan and enforce their own fiscal policy. Recognising the British State machine and army as efficient instruments for holding the masses in subjection, they are willing to tolerate them, lest worse befall, provided only that they have control of the customs and other matters affecting their interests.

Mr. Gandhi, on release from prison for the purpose of negotiations, affected at first hostility to the imperialist scheme, though he was careful to leave the door open. Followed a conference with the millowners and with those imperialist agents, Sir T. Sapru and Messrs. Jayakar and Shastri. Behold him, then, at Delhi with the Working Committee, engaged in conversations with Viceroy, and surrounded by a select coterie of mill-owners, including Mr. Birla. Some sharp bargaining ensued, for the Imperialists (through Lord Irwin), were in no mood to sacrifice Lancashire, whose exports are now a fourth of pre-war, even at the price of an India undone. In the end, however, a settlement was reached in which, apart from a petty concession in salt-making to save Mr. Gandhi’s face, they gained a complete victory, save only that the boycott (with picketing) of foreign cloth remained. Further discussion was restricted within the limits of the London scheme. Mr. Gandhi had committed perhaps the most amazing volte face in history.

The Imperialists were astonished at their own success, but they took care to bridle their tongues and to restrain their jubilation. They were not yet out of the wood. It was essential to preserve Mr. Gandhi’s prestige in order that he might carry with him the Karachi Congress, a seemingly impossible proposition. Again the unexpected happened. Congress not only confirmed the capitulation of Delhi—to call it by its true name—but appointed Mr. Gandhi plenipotentiary to deal with the British Government. Apart from a timely demonstration by the Youth League, the only really hostile notes were struck by a few speakers like Mr. Jamnadas Mehta, although, as the latter remarked, if any other person but Mr. Gandhi had brought up this settlement, he would have been thrown into the sea.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who uttered such valiant cries at Lahore and after, proved, in Bismarck’s phrase, “a lath painted to look like iron.” Mr. S. C. Bose spoke boldly, but in the end on that fatuous plea—unity of the, Congress—withdrew his opposition. The collapse was complete.

What were the reasons for this landslide? All agree that it was largely due to the personal sway—call it hypnotism or what you will—of Mr. Gandhi. In fairness to him it must be remembered that it was he who first appealed to the masses of India, summoning them to a crusade for freedom against their foreign masters. His words have gone from end to end of the land, castigating the Government as with whips. If on a former occasion he led the people to attack, only to fail them ere the attack began, the stream of his seductive though illusory oratory has never wholly ceased, an oratory of which the religious note makes a peculiar appeal to Indians. India is the land of religions, perhaps the last refuge of religions—hence Mr. Gandhi’s title of Mahatma. Moreover had he not but yesterday as the plenipotentiary of India spoken with the Viceroy face to face, in secret conclave? Personally he is without fear. Nor has any man during the period of his life won the willing obedience of so many millions.

Mr. Gandhi apart, it is not to be supposed that the capitalist wire-pullers, so successful at Delhi, ceased their activities at Karachi. That, too, would account for much, the Congress being an essentially bourgeois organisgion. But a decisive factor arose from the tactics of Mr. Gandhi and the Working Committee in meeting the Congress with a fait accompli. It was a question of throwing him overboard or of submitting to his lead. Faced with this alternative, all but a tiny minority yielded up their convictions, chose the less honourable way.

In this matter there is no question as to the power behind the throne; it is the textile millowners. Always their friend, Mr. Gandhi has now come out into the open as their champion, not only against Britain but against India. That is to say, he has turned his back on independence and on nearly every claim put forward by Congress in order that the millowners may attain their goal. His campaign for home-spun was, in spite of clever rationalising, inspired in their interests and was subsidised by them. He only with reluctance acceded to the demand for independence which was against their interests. (To cover his retreat from this demand, he has recently indulged in word-spinning on the meaning of Purna Swaraj, exactly as the late C. R. Das did on the meaning of Swaraj.)

As already noted, on his release he conferred with the millowners and was accompanied by a millowners’ deputation to Delhi. It was on a question of the boycott of foreign cloth that the conference nearly broke down, this concession, with a negligible one in salt-making, being the sole salvage from Mr. Gandhi’s boasted eleven demands. Amidst the confusion and dismay which followed the Delhi capitulation, the Ahmedabad millowners welcomed Mr. Gandhi with open arms. Later on, the latter has complained that the British Government does not appreciate the benefit conferred by the lifting of the boycott on all goods except textiles. Finally, Mr. Gandhi will come to London accompanied not by the Working Committee but by Mr. Birla and two or three other Indian capitalists, nominated by the Indian Chamber of Commerce.

Before he comes he promised to arrange the religious difficulty. It goes without saying that the Round-Table Conference endorsed the plan of a communal (properly sectarian) electorate, by which the Imperialists hope to divide the National movement and to rule India. Actually, only a section of the Moslems headed by Shaukat Ali clamour for a separate electorate; others, perhaps a majority, including many prominent leaders and the Yamiat-ul-Uluma reject this monstrosity; which in practice would recoil on their own heads. Naturally it is the first party to which the Imperialists and their Press give ear. With these people Mr. Gandhi has done his best to come to terms but he has failed. His sincerity is beyond question. But religious himself, he has made the mistake of appealing to these fanatics on religious or ethical grounds.

The true reply to this imperialist manoeuvre is that the problems of Government are economic problems, with which religion has no more to do than with the phases of the moon. In politics the question is, not whether a man is a Hindu or a Moslem, but whether he is a landlord, or a tenant, a capitalist or a worker, a shopkeeper or a peasant. True, religion looms large in India as in all countries with an old agricultural civilisation. Two Japanese statesmen who visited the country early in this century opined, indeed, that India would never become great because she had too much religion. But had the British Government not thwarted the industrialising of India and smothered as far as possible all political life, India’s religion would long ere this have receded into the background. The manifold problems to which machine industry and modern chemistry give rise would have eclipsed in interest the sayings of the Rishis and the writings of the Koran. Machines have no religion. The world which they create and on which we are now entering will be without dogma.

The proper retort of Indians to the Imperialists on this issue should be in this wise: “You are talking to us in a language we do not understand: Released from the trammels you have in your own interests imposed on her, India will march forward and she will look forward. Land tenure, the rights of the workers, the organisation of industry, hydro-electric stations, education, improved agriculture and a dozen similar matters will alone occupy her mind. She will discard religious feuds as one discards an old coat, as they have been discarded in Europe, in Turkey, in Persia, in every civilised country except our India; for a century under your feet.”

What of the future? The Cabinet, it is clear, is playing for time. No date has been fixed for another London Conference; even the programme of the Federation Committee is wrapped in haze; a Conservative M.P. even stated that it might be a year or two before the Constitution was settled. By procrastination the Imperialists hope to wear down the more militant Indians, trusting the movement will peter out, as in 1922. When the Conference does re-assemble, nothing can be more certain than the fate which awaits Mr. Gandhi and his capitalist bodyguard. Mr. Baldwin and Lord Peel for the Conservatives, Lord Reading for the Liberals have reiterated that Federation and the Safeguards are integral parts of the Scheme; Labour, though more nebulous, says the same thing. “No Conference should be held with Mr. Gandhi,” said Mr. Churchill for the Die-Hards, “unless and until he has accepted all the safeguards and conditions which were prescribed in the Round-Table Conference.” Some minor concessions there may be to preserve Mr. Gandhi’s prestige, but even these the House of Lords may subsequently annul.

The real issue lies, however, in India. There will be no reaction such as followed Bardoli. The economic conditions are far worse and the events of 1930 have cut too deep. All India has been ranged into line against the Government, has come to recognise the Government as the enemy in the path. Though Mr. Gandhi and the Congress have failed the masse, the ideas that they have preached remain and those ideas spell Revolution. Already it is becoming evident, from Bardoli in the West to Chittagong in the East, that the movement is not to be obeyed at a word from Mr. Gandhi, who, sophist as he is, finds it “uphill work” to put the pact over on to the masses. His chief subterfuge is to use the word “independence” in two quite different senses, the independence of individuals and that of nations. Occasionally he oversteps the boundary into falsehood, as when he told certain Red Shirts that they would find a workers’ and peasants’ republic in Bihar.

Lord Irwin telegraphed before leaving: “We can only hope for the best,” thus betraying his own pessimism; the Governor of the Punjab has begun to use threats. One thing stands out crystal clear. In vain do the bourgeoisie and landlords call a halt—India has gone too far not to go further.

Though unconnected with the Congress manoeuvres, the case of Burma demands notice here. That country, as is well known, is separated from India not only geographically, but in race, language and religion. The Burmese have been called the Irish of the East. There are no great Burmese landlords and the capitalists are mostly British or Indian. Indians also are the mill-hands and dockers and many shop-keepers and moneylenders. For some time past Indian immigrants have been supplanting the Burmese peasantry in the delta districts, particularly in the neighbourhood of Rangoon.

The tolerant Buddhist religion making fanaticism impossible, it was this racial—really economic—friction that the imperialists have seized upon as a basis on which to divide and rule.

The second and major part of their plan is to separate Burma from India. Ever since the Congress movement began to challenge British rule in India, the officials and the British mercantile community have favoured separation. The advantages to the former are obvious; the latter also fervently desire separation, for then, whatever happens in India, they will still have a Government which they can control. The most powerful interests are the rice-millers and oil—especially oil. After the advent of the present Governor this movement took a sharper turn. Sir C. Innes literally stumped the country making speeches favour of separation, fomenting animosity against India, and holding out the bait of Dominion Status.

Even so, the Burmese were not deceived, for they understood that separation meant relegation to the position of Malaya, imprisonment without hope of release. The General Council of Burmese Associations (G.C.B.A.) answering to the Indian National Congress, with 99 per, cent. of the people, has always opposed it. The Simon Commission was boycotted in Burma as in India, and the evidence taken by it on this matter is therefore valueless.

With the Round-Table Conference Sir C. Innes saw his opportunity, Without even consulting Simla he nominated as delegates a European agitator for separation and three puppets who no more represented Burmese opinion than his private secretary. Not content with this he took “sick” leave to England and in London pulled the strings from behind the scenes. The Labour Ministers in this as in most other matters, proved themselves the easy tools of the permanent officials, though even MacDonald at one time had his doubts. Needless to say that the decision or separation has been accompanied by no promise of Dominion Status.

Opinion in Burma is thoroughly aroused to the danger which menaces the country, and they will make their will known in no uncertain way. Meanwhile, Government by ordinance continues, and their eminent leader, U. Ottama, has been refused a passport to come to London. The rebellion, however, which in spite of heavy losses, still smoulders, is unconnected with this issue nor is it, as the officials allege, in line with similar revolts in past history. Commencing in the Tharawady district, it has extended to the Insein, Henzada, Thayetmyo and Prome districts, thus proving that it is no ordinary outbreak. It springs partly from the distress of the peasantry owing to the slump in the price of rice, a distress intensified by the operations of the Bullinger rice pool. The Capitation or poll tax levied in November, an impost peculiar to Burma, must for this reason have become doubly burdensome. Partly it is a reflex from the challenge to British rule in India, for now as always every true Burman hopes to see his country, “independent as in the days of yore.” The number of insurgents killed has reached the astonishing figure of one thousand; mass trials are taking place of hundreds at a time, thus rendering any attempt at justice impossible; as many as fifteen have been executed in one batch. The insurgents it must be remembered possess only a few guns, being armed for the most part with daks. (A dak may be anything from a sword to a chopper.) From camps in the forests they wage guerrilla warfare, assisted by the sympathy of the countryside. That in spite of this unheard-of severity, the rising is still unquelled evidences an intensity of feeling, a doggedness and resolution which bode ill for British rule, separation or no separation. This revolt the government will suppress, but they will not conquer the Burmese will for freedom, the will to struggle and to suffer until they stand erect, “a nation once again.”