K. Milani

Imperialism “Tackles” the Indian Problem1

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 14, April 1932, No. 4 pp. 225-234, (4,707 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The Round-Table Conference has finished its labours. The second session of the Conference went the way of the first session, i.e., to the garbage heap of history without accomplishing even its modest official task—the drafting of an Indian Constitution for presentation to Parliament. The bourgeois nationalist press already refers its readers to the earlier prophecies of Gandhi, in order to prove that the Congress at any rate never put much faith in the Conference. The representatives of the reactionary communal organisations, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Moslem League, the Sikh League, &c., throw the blame for the breakdown of the Conference on each other, at the same time letting loose a new flood of unbridled communal propaganda in India. As to British imperialism it tries to impress on India and on the world at large that the real obstacle to Indian self-government is not at all its domination, but the inability of the Indian “peoples” to come to an agreement among themselves. Whence it follows that the British Raj must remain the supreme arbiter of their destinies for all time to come.

Behind this smoke-screen thrown around the inglorious end of the Conference, lies the undisputable fact that the Conference constitutes for British imperialism a victory over the Indian bourgeoisie. The immediate object of the Conference was to secure the active co-operation of the national bourgeoisie in the suppression of the revolutionary movement in India. British imperialism has succeeded in this object. The Congress press has been doing its level best to divert the attention of the masses from the revolutionary struggle to the talking shop in London. The Congress leaders have strained every effort, to demobilise the revolutionary spirit of the masses, to break up the militant organisations of the workers, to localise and damp the fires of peasant revolts. And this counter-revolutionary co-operation of the national bourgeoisie British imperialism secured gratis, without sacrificing any of its positions.

And yet, in spite of all these victories of British imperialism, the Conference remains an utter failure. It failed as a palliative. British imperialism, together with its national-bourgeois ally, did not succeed in suppressing the present revolutionary movement in India. The peasant revolt in Burma continues. The resistance of the peasantry in the United Provinces against rent and tax collection is stiffening. The strike movement of the workers is again picking up. The dissatisfaction with the treacherous policy of the Congress leads to an increase of terrorist activity in Bengal.

The Conference proved a failure in yet another direction. Since the defeat of the first post-war revolutionary movement in India, the British bourgeoisie has been searching for a solution of the most difficult, the most complicated of, all problems forced on it by the post-war crisis of British imperialism—the so-called “Indian Problem.” All the Royal Commissions which infested India during the last six or seven years—the Agricultural Commission, the Simon Commission, and, lately, the Labour Commission, were given the task of collecting information and examining the various aspects of the Indian problem. It is in this connection that the lessons of the Round Table Conference are important, for, as we shall see later, the Round Table Conference was among other things an attempt to carry out in practice one of the proposed solutions of this very problem, viz., the recommendations of the Simon Report.

The breakdown of the old social order in India

Wherein lies the peculiarity of the problem the British bourgeoisie is confronted with in India? It lies in the fact that there the crisis of the imperialist superstructure is closely interwoven with and aggravated by the profound crisis of the Indian social order, an order which itself has been nursed and shaped by two centuries of colonial subjugation. The whole outworn fabric of Indian society; with its land hunger and debt slavery of the peasantry, with the “colonial” starvation wages of the employed and the untold sufferings of the unemployed workers, with the terrible death rate of the working class and terrific death rate in the working class quarters in Bombay and Calcutta; with the whip of the overseer in the plantations, the exactions of the jobber in the factory; with the unpunishable arrogance of the white sahib and the denial of elementary rights to the “native”; with the omnipotence of the C.I.D. and the supreme authority of the lathi—all this huge mediaeval structure is giving way and threatens to bury the British Raj under its ruins. The mass movement of 1919-22 was the first indication that this revolutionary process had set in in India. The catastrophic shrinkage of the Indian market which delivers mighty blows to British capitalism is but another aspect of it. But it was the rise of the militant workers’ and peasants’ movement spurred in the latest years by the world-wide economic crisis which made the Indian problem a life and death question for British imperialism.

The British imperialists never hesitated for a moment to suppress with an iron hand the slightest expression of dissatisfaction on the part of the Indian masses. But can the policy of the iron hand prevent the recurrence of revolutionary crises, can it increase the purchasing power of the Indian population, above all is it a guarantee against the revolution? Both the age-long experience of the British bourgeoisie and the post-war revolutionary developments elsewhere, the Russian and Chinese revolutions in particular, answer in the negative. The British bourgeoisie understood that, in the face of new millions of people rising to political life, the social basis of its rule in India, represented by a handful of Rajahs, landlords and moneylenders, becomes miserably inadequate to the requirements of the situation. The imperialist colonial regime cannot continue without broadening its social basis, without finding direct or indirect supporters among larger strata of the population. This is possible, if at all, only through a change in the social economic structure of the country. So it came about, that without stopping for one moment its terrorist machine, the British bourgeoisie set out in search of a reformist solution of the Indian problem.

Solving the Agrarian Problem

The defeat of the post-war revolutionary movement gave British imperialism hope for a long period of calm in India. It, therefore set about its task in a thorough manner. It decided to tackle the Indian problem at its root which undoubtedly is the agrarian question. We recall how the appointment of an agricultural expert (Lord Irwin) as Viceroy was hailed by the British capitalist press as the beginning of a new era in India. Then came the Royal Agricultural Commission. Two years of extensive travel over the length and breadth of the country, fourteen volumes of evidence, a bulky report. . . .

What is the nature of the peasant problem as seen by British imperialism in India? There undoubtedly exists an insignificant group of rich peasants which supports the British raj. But in the first instance this group is numerically very weak, secondly it consists mainly of moneylenders, traders, peasants who let out land, &c., in short, of such elements who come into direct conflict with the majority of the village population and therefore can have no influence over it. British imperialism must broaden this group of rich peasants and, secondly, give it such avenues of exploitation as will make it less hateful to the peasant masses. This is possible only on the way of capitalist agriculture, which while directly counterposing to the rich peasant the agricultural worker, does not prevent him from exercising his influence over the rest of the peasantry. But to make room for the rich peasant farmer, the poor peasants must be cleared out from the land.

Such is the nature of the reformist solution of the agrarian problem in India, and such in substance was the Government Bill introduced in Bombay some years ago. British imperialism was ready to solve the agrarian problem in Bombay by driving something like four million peasants off the land. That this meant acute discontent and probably uprisings in the villages could not remain hidden from the imperialists. The imperialist power was ready to stand the test. And all of a sudden after the Bill passed its second reading it was hastily withdrawn by the Government. What was it scared the valiant imperialist masters of India? It was the rise of the mighty strike movement in Bombay, which later swept the whole Indian continent. While British imperialism was prepared to throw down a challenge to a bewildered disorganised peasantry, it did not dare to face a combined mass movement of workers and peasants, developing, as it was bound to do, under the hegemony of the working class, and led, as the Bombay workers were, by a determined revolutionary leadership.

“Divide and Rule” as a solution of the Constitutional Problem

The Agricultural Commission had not finished its work when the Simon Commission set sail for India. The task of the Simon Commission was to deal with the constitutional aspect of the Indian problem. Translated into plain language it means that the Commission was charged with the task to find some constitutional outlet for the reformist opposition of the national bourgeoisie, some safety valve for the revolutionary discontent of the masses—of course in order to strengthen, not to weaken the political power of British imperialism in India. Again two years for travel and investigations, again a two-volume report. What were the conclusions the Simon Commission arrived at? They can be summed up in a few words. Sharing of political power with the Indian bourgeoisie is dangerous, the least democratisation of the colonial state—universal suffrage for instance—spells death to British domination. There is no other way out then but to perfect and extend the old policy of divide and rule. To make use of all existing divisions among the Indian people, to create new ones wherever possible, to play off community against community, caste against caste, nationality against nationality, province against province, the native princes against the bourgeoisie.

The rise of the revolutionary movement forced the imperialist Labour Government to disown the Simon Report before it was off the press. But what it repudiated in word it carried out in deed. The opposition of the national bourgeoisie called for a short overture—it was provided by the first session of the Conference. As ordained by the conductor of the orchestra the dominating tone of the overture was unanimity. There was complete unanimity about Dominion status, complete unanimity about Federation, unanimity about everything. The national bourgeoisie in India shed tears of repentance listening to the princes playing the tunes of Dominion Status. “Ah! what an opera to go to! What a contrast from here where the rough voices of the mob do not tire of shouting ‘Long live revolution.’ . . . . Why, they may at any movement leap at our throats!”

The keynote of the second session of the Conference became the communal issue. Its effect was immediate, it worked wonders with the Congress delegates. Only alas! It affected only the Indian bourgeoisie, but not the revolutionary masses of India. Herein lies the ignominious failure of the Conference. What glaring mile-long headlines were flashed by the Anglo-Indian press: “Malaviya demands . . .”; “Shaukat Ali refuses . . .”; “The depressed classes denounce the Congress Brahmins . . . .”; &c., &c. In Chittagong the cultured English gentlemen leaving behind their imperialist dignity led in person a mob of Moslem rogues for a pogrom of Hindu shops. All was in vain. With a few exceptions the masses went about their revolutionary work without paying the slightest attention to these imperialist provocations. Moreover, as the latest events show, in times of revolutionary crises the communal issue itself becomes a doubled-edged weapon dangerous for imperialism to play with. The proof is the Kashmir uprising. It started as a communal conflict but developed as a peasant revolt. Thus the Simon device was tried and found wanting. One more scheme of solving the Indian problem, of stemming the Indian revolution has fallen through.

The Whitley Commission Finds a solution of the Indian Labour Problem

In dealing with the various aspects of the Indian problem British imperialism nearly forgot about the Indian workers. At least before 1928 little or nothing was heard from the imperialist press about the labour problem in India. The flare up of a militant strike movement which in the last three years has shaken the very foundations of British power in India has helped imperialism to “discover” the Indian proletariat. The first result of this discovery, was the Meerut trial. The other result is the Whitley Commission’s Report.

The main task of the Whitley Commission was to find a reformist solution of the labour problem in India. We say the main task because as revealed by a careful perusal of the Report, its real terms of reference (not the fake ones mentioned in the King’s Order in Council) included also the finding of methods for increasing the efficiency of the workers and devising of means whereby the position of British-owned industries in India can be strengthened as against their native competitors.

In order to see the general line of the Commission’s conclusions we must again understand the nature of the Indian labour problem as it presents itself to British imperialism. The peculiarity of this problem lies in the absence, or the very great weakness, of the transmitting belts from imperialism to the proletarian masses. In the capitalist countries, in England itself, there is a strong Labour Aristocracy ingrained in the general mass of the workers which serves to transmit to them imperialist ideology, theories of class collaboration, &c., and thus succeeds in keeping them away from revolutionary action. In India, reformist workers’ parties, such as the Labour Party or Social Democracy, are practically non-existent, reformist trade unions are very weak, labour aristocracy in so far as it is to be found at all is composed mainly of Anglo-Indians who are completely detached from the general mass of Indian workers. On the contrary, revolutionary leadership, revolutionary trade unions though also still weak, find a ready response on the part of the workers wherever they go. The following somewhat extensive quotation from the Whitley report is highly illuminating in this respect:—

In recent years trade unionism has had to face internal difficulties. For some time efforts have been made by communists in India . . . to capture the movement. These met with their greatest success in Bombay in 1928. The absence of any strong (the imperialist commissioners of course mean reformist) organisation among the cotton mill workers and a realisation of their weakness, combined with the encouragement given by the result of a prolonged strike, enabled a few of the communist leaders, by an intense effort to capture the imagination of the workers and eventually to sweep over 50,000 of them into a communist organisation. One effect of these strikes, and particularly the last disastrous strike, has been to render difficult the development of effective (again read reformist) trade union organisation during the next few years. The workers discouraged and depressed, are divided and many of them are still imbued with communist beliefs and ideals.... Until this obstacle is removed, better understanding and relationship with the work people (i.e., their quiet submission to capitalist exploitation) is exceedingly difficult if not impossible of attainment. (Page 319.)

British imperialism is intelligent enough to see that there is no strong reformist section in the Indian working class because there is no economic basis for it. Indeed, what economic basis can there be for mass corruption of the workers, when, again to quote from the Report:—

“The better-paid workers” spend from 82 per cent. to 85 per cent. of their wages on the primary necessities of life, not including . . . washing, the barber, household utensils, furniture, sickness, “the events of life, birth, marriages, and deaths,” and sometimes “travelling to and from their villages.”

On the margin that remains after all these necessities have been met (met indeed!) there is one charge of great importance, the obligations arising from indebtedness.

. . . . The remainder if any (!!) can be devoted to the few pleasures that are open to the illiterate. (Page 207)

As to indebtedness: “It is estimated that in most industrial centres the proportion of families or individuals who are in debt is not less than two-thirds of the whole. We believe that in the great majority of cases, the amount of debt exceeds three months’ wages and is often in excess of this amount.” (Page 224.)

The Whitley Commission then set down to examine ways and means whereby to create an economic basis for a labour aristocracy in India. This is no joke. The Commission in dead earnest proceeded to discuss all devices by which capitalism succeeded (but succeeds no more!) to keep the Western workers under its thumb. Unemployment insurance? There are hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers in India. Only recently the Government railways have discharged about 40,000 workers. In the great jute industry employing 340,000, 80,000 have been thrown out while the rest are working short time. “But,” laments the Commission, “we cannot regard any national system of insurance with which we are familiar as feasible at present in India.” (Page 35.)

A statutory wage minimum? A good device. “It is likely,” concedes the Commission, “that there are many trades in which a minimum wage may be desirable, but (ends the Commission) not immediately practicable.” (Page 212.) Profit sharing? There was a time when company unions based on profit-sharing created quite a fuss in the United States. Mr. S. C. Bose and other “left” bourgeois nationalists are quite ready to make profit-sharing the corner stone of their newly-invented “Indian” socialism. Alas, “in the present state of industrial development (of India) any such (profit-sharing) schemes are unlikely to prove either useful or effective.” (Page 210.)

And so the imperialist commissioners systematically turned down one after another all the devices for fooling the workers known to capitalism. The reason is plain enough. Imperialism does not want and cannot afford to part with a share of its profits in order to create a reformist section in the Indian working class numerous enough to produce the desired political effect. And when? At a time when it can no more support the standard of life of the British working class, at a time, when on account of that it is threatened with proletarian revolt at home!

Any reformist schemes which entail the passing of a part of surplus profit on to the workers are excluded in India. This much the Labour Commission has firmly established. It remained therefore for them to look for a solution which would not diminish the profits of the capitalist class. And, surprising as it may seem, they hit on such a “solution.” What they propose is nothing more nor less than to create a labour aristocracy in India at the expense of the working class itself! You think it is impossible? Well, here it is, this miraculous scheme in a nutshell:—

It is important to observe that in many cases the level of earnings of industrial workers as a class can be substantially raised without extra cost to the employers. . . . In many branches of Indian industry poverty is aggravated by the retention of far more workers than are required. One of the worst examples is shipping. The coal fields provide another striking instance, and in the factories cases are numerous where excessive turnover results in swelling the number of employees among whom the work has to be divided. . . . We would again press the importance of substituting, as far as possible, the regular for the irregular worker. . . . It may be urged that, if wage rates are not raised, the only effect is to enrich some workers while preventing others from entering industrial employment with no resultant benefit. This, however, is a shortsighted view. Even if the surplus workers that the factories now attract to the city could find nothing to do in the their villages, they would still be better there, where they are in healthier surroundings and can be supported at less expense. . . . The reduction of the numbers in the industrial centres would ease the problems of housing, sanitation, medical attention, and health generally. (Pages 210-211.)

The idea is clear, isn’t it? Stop all migration of the expropriated peasants to the cities, send away all the “superfluous” workers to the village, and divide the wage bill among the rest. This at once will raise the wages to a higher level. On this basis it must not be difficult to build a labour aristocracy. For instance, “the deep cleavage between the ryots and the supervising grades in Indian industry is a constant source of weakness.” (Page 29.) The jobber who is the only intermediary between the workers and the employers and “thus adds to his other functions some of those frequently discharged by trade union officials in the West,” is hated by the workers whom he mercilessly exploits through bribes and therefore cannot exercise over them the influence reformist trade union officials exercise in the West. How is this to be remedied? Give the Indian Workers “the incentive given elsewhere by the possibility of securing the prizes of their calling. It is true that in every country the prizes are few; but their existence has a strong effect (so!) on the work of the many, and particularly in developing the qualities of the more ambitious men.” (Page 29.) This will divert the jobbers from bribe-taking and make them a more efficient instrument in the hands of the employers. Another instance: “Most unions are at present hampered by having too limited a scope and too few activities. There is a disposition to regard a union as a mere agency for securing benefits from employers, and to overlook the valuable work that can be done in the way of mutual help.” (Page 237.) The workers, don’t you see, consider that the task of their trade unions is to fight against the capitalists! How unfortunate! Give them co-operative credit, help them to establish stores, to open a saving bank (to save the margin that is left after . . .) and you will draw them away from the class struggle.

What has been said suffices to demonstrate the general trend of the Report. The answer to the task set to the Commission by British imperialism is: there can be no solution of the labour problem in India except at the expense of the workers themselves. The question is: will this “kind of solution” work?

Is a Reformist solution of the Indian Problem possible?

If the imperialist schemes of, a “peaceful,” i.e., reformist solution of the Indian problem fall flat as they invariably do, it is not because of a lack of foresight or intelligence. It is because the terrible living conditions of the Indian masses on the one side and the limitations inherent in the colonial system on the other, narrow down the field for reformist exploits in India to the edge of a knife: We have seen how a “peaceful” solution of the agrarian problem could only mean peasant war or wars in the village. Let us for a moment come back to the Whitley Report. It proposes first to bottle up the outlet for the superfluous village population to the towns, and, secondly, to discharge a large number of workers and drive them out to the over-populated village “where they can be supported (by whom?) at lesser expense.” However, the Commission itself finds that the migration of peasants to the cities is pushed by deep economic causes:—

Over large parts of India the number of persons on the land is much greater than the number required to cultivate it and appreciably in excess of the number it can comfortably support. . . . There has always been a substantial class of landless labourers, earning a meagre living in good seasons and apt to be reduced to penury in bad ones. . . . There are traces of feudalism to be found in many parts of the country; and in a few areas there is still a system of bond service which is not far removed from slavery. (Pages 14-15.)

Under these conditions, even as they are depicted by the Commission, will the peasants agree “peacefully” to starve in the villages. Is it possible to discharge hundreds of thousands of workers—because hundreds of thousands have to be thrown out if the scheme is to produce any results at all—without rousing the whole working class to a determined fight, without producing great social cataclysms? British imperialism knows the answer—it is impossible and if it still goes on with its schemes it is because it hopes to time their execution with a return of “normal” conditions when imperialism will be able to rely on its renewed strength—not to avoid social conflicts which are unavoidable—but to turn them into mass massacres, to make certain of its victory over the masses. British imperialism hastened to drop its agrarian projects when the first wave of the proletarian struggle swept India. In the midst of the present crisis of the whole capitalist system, British imperialism is still less prepared to take chances. Says the Whitley Commission, “India has the right to expect from us, not a series of recommendations framed in the light of the existing crisis, but a considered programme for the development of labour policy.” (Page 4.) Yes, honourable gentlemen, you are not at all as cocksure as you used to be. This is a good sign. This will encourage the Indian working class to have more faith in itself. But will the “normal” conditions you so eagerly long for ever return? Will history give you time to accomplish the vivisection of millions in order to transfuse new blood into your dying colonial system?

The answer to this question does not depend only on objective conditions. Before the era of the world revolution began, after the revolution of the Russian workers and peasants of 1905 was defeated, Lenin wrote about the Tsarist scheme of agrarian reform, that its execution will require at least 20 years and during this time, said he, repeated crises of the monarchy were inevitable. It will then depend on the work of the revolutionary working class party to transform these coming crises into a new revolution.

In the India of to-day the situation is different in many respects. There British imperialism is faced with problems in comparison with which the Russian agrarian problem was an innocent cross-word puzzle. In the midst of a tottering capitalist world the crises in India follow each other with ever-increasing vehemence. History does not give British imperialism a breathing space in which to try, much less to accomplish, its crafty schemes. The whole huge mass of the great Indian people is set in motion. Hundreds of thousands are already in the trenches. Millions are marching to join them.

The only really all-important question is, will these millions enter the fight in organised columns, under the banner of a clear-cut revolutionary programme of their own, under the leadership of a revolutionary staff which will faithfully stand by them to the end, in other words, with greatest chances for victory, or will they rush into the struggle ill-equipped, without a clear understanding of their tasks, with chance leaders who are liable to desert them at the most decisive moments and be massacred, like the Burmese peasantry, by the superior forces of imperialism?

The National Congress with its Gandhis and Nehrus and Boses, with words of non-violence on their lips are putting their stakes on the second way which is in the interests of British imperialism, of the Indian capitalists and zemindars. It is only the Indian Communist Party which is steadfastly and unswervingly preparing the first way, the way of transformation of the growing but elemental resistance of the masses to imperialist oppression in an organised victorious revolution.



1. This article is from the November-December issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the organ of the League against Imperialism, all copies of which the Home Office has held up, saying that it “would be contrary to the public interest” to release them.