Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 17, February 1935, No. 2, pp. 107-113, (3,403 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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[The following is a contribution by one of the released Meerut prisoners to the series of articles dealing with the National Government’s new scheme for the enslavement of the Indian people. The first article in this series by Reginald Bridgman (International Secretary, League Against Imperialism), was published last month.]
A very correct and important estimate of the British ruling class is given by Stalin in the official report of his talk with Wells:
Generally speaking, it must be said that of all the ruling classes, the ruling classes of England, both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, proved to be the cleverest, the most flexible from the point of view of their class interests, from the point of view of maintaining their power. . . . In order to maintain their rule, the ruling classes of Great Britain have never forsworn small concessions, reforms. (Stalin-Wells Talk, The New Statesman. 6d.)
The cleverness and flexible strategy of the British ruling class has never been better illustrated than by the present proposals for Indian constitutional reform now before Parliament.
The Report of the Joint Committee and the proceedings in Parliament are remarkable in that they reveal the cynical frankness of the imperialist Majority, constantly breaking through the disguise of the usual hypocritical phraseology. Although the usual phrases are used, emphasis is no longer laid on the future benevolence and philanthropy of British rule in India, but on the necessity of holding India by any means and at any cost. It is, in the words of the Liberal, Foot, “not a question so much of India needing us. I think we need India.”1 And the new contempt for the old phrases was expressed by Major Attlee: “. . . . the idea that Indians must always be ruled for their own good by the lonely white man is a late Victorian sentiment.”2 Instead it is made clear that constitutional reform is urgently necessary if imperialism is going to preserve its hold of India. The necessity was expressed frankly by Baldwin to the Conservative Party at the Queen’s Hall on December 4 last. He then warned the opposition within the imperialist camp that, unless this scheme of Indian constitutional reform was accepted, “we should lose India in two generations.” A grim warning to which Churchill, the leader of the diehard opposition to any concession being made to Indian nationalism, could only reply by a gibe as to the exact measurement of a generation.
Baldwin’s statement is proof that the dominant imperialist majority has a much firmer grasp of the realities of the Indian situation than the semi-fascist diehard group led by Churchill. The inflexible “No Surrender” policy of the Churchill group is the policy adopted by the government of George III., which resulted in the loss of the American colonies; a lesson which imperialism has not forgotten. The trusted agents of British finance-capital realise that imperialism can only hope to prolong its rule in India, in face of the growing forces and difficulties which history is piling up against it, by remaining flexible; in order to survive it must adapt its machinery of government from time to time to changing political and economic circumstances.
Constitutional reform is, therefore, the means by which an astute imperialism carries out alterations and repairs to the machinery of government, in order to bring that machinery up to date, so that it can deal more effectively with the growing strength of opposing forces. In this sense only, constitutional reform is an index to the growth of revolutionary forces.
Baldwin is also correct in stressing the danger to imperialism of postponing the necessary alterations indefinitely. In the guarded language of Sir Samuel Hoare in the House of Commons, the proposals are made
. . . . because we believe that the differences between Great Britain and India are not yet irreconciliable, but that, if we do not adjust our relations to modern conditions, those differences will drag us further and further apart. (Hansard, December to, 1934, p.60.)
In other words, “if we do not adjust our administrative machinery and strengthen our hands to deal with new conditions, we shall be faced with open rebellion.”
The same warning is to be found in the Government’s reply to the Tory critics of the proposals, who are busy prophesying the same results in India, if the reforms are adopted, as those that have taken place in Ireland following “the sombre decision” of 1921. Both Mr. Baldwin and Captain Cazalet hastened to put them right. The latter shows that he understands the correct imperialist strategy of constitutional reform:
The true analogy is not what happened in Ireland after the war, but what ought to have been done in regard to Ireland in the ’eighties. There was a time then when men of the Conservative and Liberal Parties and many people in Ireland were prepared to come to some agreement which would have been infinitely better and more honourable for all parties concerned than the ignominious surrender which we were driven to accept a few years after the war. (Hansard, December 10, 1934, p.122.)
It follows that imperialism must not only be flexible, but must know when to be flexible.
In pursuing its strategy of constitutional reform, imperialism is not reforming the constitution of India in the interests of Indians, but is doing so only in the interests of imperialism. It does not mean a constitutional advance of the Indian people; it means on the contrary new and stronger chains to keep them docile in the face of the continued and intensified exploitation of India by the agents of finance-capital.
The speeches in Parliament have made it clear that the new constitution is to be forced on India whether she likes it or not. Churchill, Wolmer, Page-Croft, and other critics belonging to the imperialist right wing, scored one of their most impressive points in the Debate, by pointing out that all the Indian politicians who co-operated with the Joint Committee in framing the present proposals have been ignominiously defeated in the recent elections in India. The Government is so affected by this that Sir Samuel Hoare indulges in an important funeral oration:
. . . . is there a substantial body of public men in India who are prepared to work the Constitution? I am painfully aware of the fact that few, if any, Indian public men can say that they are satisfied with this or any other scheme.... I know also that in the recent elections which took place for the Indian Assembly, Congress, upon a programme of hostility to these proposals, won very many seats. I know also that many of my Indian friends with whom I have worked during the last three or four years, have been defeated. They fell, let me say in passing, in the honourable cause of co-operation and reconciliation. (Hansard, December 10, 1934, p.57.)
Even the Princes, those remnants of feudalism maintained by British bayonets, afraid of any outside interference with their misrule, are suspicious of the scheme, and have had to be dragooned into acceptance by threats, promises and bribes. Major Courtauld informed the House of Commons that one Indian Prince had confided in him that he disliked the proposals, but had had to conceal his opinion for the following reasons:
You know, we are none of us infallible, and all of us may make mistakes in the administration of our States. If I agree with the Government’s policy I am a good boy, and if I make a mistake not much notice will be taken of it, but if I now get up and say I disagree and make myself uncomfortable to them, then if I made a mistake my life would be made a burden to me. (Hansard, December 11, 1934, p.290.)
Indeed, the position of the Princes under the new Constitution will be a curious one. The internal regime of the States will remain the same, and the laws of the Federation of which they are members will not run in the States. Yet in spite of this they will nominate 104 of the 260 members of the Federal Upper House, and 125 of the 375 members of the Federal Lower House. They are thus commiserated with on their position by Viscount Wolmer:
The position of the Indian Princes in the Federal Legislature is the most vulnerable in the whole scheme. They will be forced into the position of voting on issues which do not directly affect their States. They will be voting for taxes in budgets which their own subjects will not pay. How long do you think Congress and Indian politicians are going to stand that? . . . do you think that Congress will hesitate to start an intensive agitation against the position of the Princes? ... How long do you expect the Indian Princes to go on pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for you? (Hansard (Lords), December 10, 1934, p.96.)
Although imperialism persists, in spite of the strenuous opposition from within its own camp, in thrusting a new constitution on people who emphatically do not want it, it should not be thought that imperialism will not obtain sufficient support in India to work the constitution. They will certainly get the support of Indian capitalism and the landlord-moneylender class; but these classes will give their support not because they like the scheme, which falls far short of their expectations, but because they themselves being the immediate oppressors of the masses are forced to rely on imperialism to protect them from the wrath of their victims. The Indian National Congress will itself in practice work the constitution by its adoption of the programme of constitutional opposition.
It is not the purpose of this article to deal in detail with the actual proposals of the India Constitution Bill, which has already been done in the pages of the LABOUR MONTHLY and elsewhere.3 By the new constitution, imperialism hopes to strengthen its political and economic hold on India, and to increase the autocratic powers of its agents, by masquerading as democracy. The new Indian Legislatures will be composed entirely of the representatives of imperialist and Indian vested interests. There will be no direct election of the Federal Legislature, to which the members of the Provincial Legislatures, each community voting separately for its own candidates, will send their representatives. Franchise for the Provincial Legislatures will be extended only to those who possess high educational and property qualifications. Out of a population of 350,000,000, only 35,000,000 men and women will be entitled to vote. Thus Bengal with a population of 50,000,000 will only have a total electorate of 7,500,000. And this meagre representation itself will be split up into separate electorates for the different communities, with seats reserved for specific vested interests. Even the Liberal sentiments of Mr. Foot were outraged after this system had been explained to him by Lord Salisbury, and he described it as “the negation of democracy”; and the position is so obvious that the champions of Labour in the House of Commons were forced to pay lip-service to the cause of the Indian masses. Major Attlee, for example, stated:
Let us suppose that we have this Constitution. What will be the position of the masses under it? We do not want to hand over the workers and peasants of India to the Princes, landlords, moneylenders, industrialists and lawyers. I fear that is what we are doing. In the provinces there are second chambers in which vested interests are entrenched. They are pretty strong in the first chambers as well. At the Centre they are not only entrenched, but dug right in. (Hansard, December 10, 1934, p.70.)
But even the packed Legislatures cannot be guaranteed to function exclusively in the imperialist interests; and therefore imperialism has devised an all-embracing system of safeguards, reserved subjects, special responsibilities, which concentrates all real political power in the hands of a super-dictator, called the Governor-General, and absolute provincial dictators in the name of Governors, with the result that the whole conception of responsible Federal Government is turned into a mockery. And in addition imperialism safeguards its financial dictatorship by the creation of the Indian Reserve Bank which, placed outside the sphere of legislative or ministerial control, will regulate and dominate the whole economic life of the country.
The whole scheme of safeguards has been so carefully worked out that even the diehard opposition has been forced to concede that the present proposals before Parliament are far more satisfactory to them than the previous proposals of the Government as published in the White Paper of 1933. In fact the only complaint of Lord Salisbury, one of its leaders, is that although the present proposals would “put India into a straight jacket,”4 in practice the straight jacket would turn out to be made of paper. Sir Samuel Hoare attempts to set his fears at rest:
No, Sir, these safeguards are not paper safeguards. They are safeguards with sanction behind them and with effective executive action to be put into effect if need arises. (Hansard, December 10, 1934, p.56.)
In spite, however, of these assurances, realistic enough as they are, the leaders of the Conservative right wing are not satisfied. They consider that any concession to Indian pressure and opinion, however slight it may be, necessarily weakens the imperialist hold of India. Their spokesman, Churchill, derides the Government contention that the new reforms will strengthen the imperialist government:
Then we are told: “Alas, the central government is so weak. The poor, weak central government cannot continue as it is; we want a stronger government.” What do you mean by a stronger government? . . . Never was there a government so strong as the existing Government of India. It is quite true that it does not use its strength, that it defers more than is desirable to the opinions of the unsatisfactory representative legislative assembly which has been gathered together at Delhi. (Hansard, December 12, 1934, p.460.)
Here we have more than a glimpse of the alternative policy recommended by the imperialist right wing. The existing government in India is quite strong enough, if only it would ignore Indian opinion and use its strength. In short, the Conservative right wing demands “firm government” by which it means full fascist dictatorship based even more openly than now on violence and terror, and carried on in the teeth of the opposition of every section of the population.
They make no secret of the form of government they would like to see established in India. The Government plea that if it adopted the Churchill policy in India, it would be faced almost immediately with a mass rebellion, is treated with scorn by the pro-fascist diehards; and Sir Henry Page-Croft produces and reads to the startled House of Commons the following extract from an important document signed by the “eight greatest generals” who have recently held commands in India:
We, the undersigned, having had considerable and recent military experience in India, state unhesitatingly that, from a military point of view, we can, at any time, hold India against external and internal dangers, provided we retain command of the land and sea communications and control of the police. (Hansard, December 11, 1934, p.256.)
The very fact of the existence of such a document leaves little room for doubt of the attitude of the imperialist right wing to the Indian question. Although the actual Indian policy of imperialism is not as yet the policy of the Conservative right wing, the importance of the latter lies in the strength of its opposition. The Churchill-Salisbury-Lloyd group is the pace-maker of the Government’s Indian policy. It is owing to its strenuous opposition that the imperialist majority has inserted in the Constitution Bill several additional repressive safeguards to those that were originally published in the Government White Paper. As Palme Dutt has already pointed out, the near-fascist Conservative right wing is the driving force behind imperialism’s new Indian policy.
The Conservative right wing constitutes the only opposition in Parliament to the Government’s Indian proposals. The empty and unreal character of the Labour Party’s opposition was exposed by Baldwin, who, when replying to the debate, brought Lansbury to the verge of hysteria, by announcing that he only proposed to reply to “the real opposition . . . . from a number of my own supporters.”5 Indeed, the position of the Labour opposition is decidedly ambiguous. It was under the Labour Government that the new imperialist policy was initiated; representatives of the Labour Party participated in the Round Table Conferences, and sat on the Joint Committee; and although these representatives signed a minority report they did not disagree fundamentally with the findings of the Joint Committee. There is more than a little truth in Churchill’s accusation that the Labour Party is responsible for the paternity of the present constitutional proposals. As he himself puts it:
Their paternity is proved without any doubt, and they are not going to escape the consequences by merely abusing the wretched brat which has been foisted on the guileless Conservatives. (Hansard, December 12, 1934, p.447.)
The position of the Labour Party is unenviable. Being now His Majesty’s Opposition, it is forced by the pressure of its rank and file to pretend to denounce its own offspring, in exactly the same manner as it has been forced to denounce the prosecution at Meerut and the fierce repression of the 1930-31 civil disobedience movement for which it was itself responsible. Being unable to make any radical attack on its own offspring, it is forced to attack the Government for omitting in the present proposals the smug phrases of MacDonald and Sankey at the first Round Table Conference. The leaders of the Labour Party are rather conscious of their oppositional inadequacy; and Lansbury thus weakly tries to defend his party in the face of Churchill’s contempt:
We shall not obstruct, and because we take that attitude the right hon. Member for Epping has once or twice chivied us by saying, “You are not an Opposition; you do not fight the Government. It is we who fight the Government.” (Hansard, December 12, 1934, p.507.)
The whole position of the Labour Party on the Indian question is one of agreement on the main issues of the present proposed reforms; it agrees that these reforms are necessary if imperialism is going to hold India; but it desires that the imperialist objects should be cloaked in more palatable phraseology. It objects to the frankness which has crept into the present proposals. It rejoices when the present Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, jauntily declares himself to be “a lifelong Liberal and Home Ruler”6; but is annoyed when the Government at home does not take up the same attitude. The main complaint of the Labour Party leaders is that there is no mention in the Constitution Bill of the promotion of India in the far distant future to “dominion status.” The whole position is put into a nutshell by the Labour spokesman, Attlee:
I wonder whether it is possible to think of a great nationalist movement going forward without something to inscribe on its banners. If it does not have “Dominion Status” on its banners, perhaps it will have “Separation” (Hansard, December 10, 1934, p.65.)
Or, in other words, if you want to keep the Indian people quiet in the new fetters you are preparing, give them something palatable and harmless to put on their banners.
It is a fatuous insult to the Indian masses. The mass movement in India, the movement of hungry peasants and sweated workers, which is growing stronger day by day, will not be content to compromise with imperialism. They will not be content with the Labour Party’s offer of dominion status; they will be satisfied with nothing less than complete independence for their country and complete emancipation for themselves. And while the agents of imperialism in Britain and in India are squabbling over the new chains they are forging, they would do well to remember the words of Engels: “Their executioner waits at the door.”
1. Hansard (Parliamentary Debates); December 10, 1934. p.88.
2. Hansard, December 10, 1934, p.64.
3. Readers are referred for instance to a pamphlet just published by the League against Imperialism, entitled India and a New Dictatorship. B. Bradley and L. Hutchinson 1d. Ed. LABOUR MONTHLY.
4. Queen’s Hall Conservative Party Conference, Dec 4th, 1934
5. Hansard, December 12, 1934, p.513
6. Quoted in Hansard (Lords), December 11, 1934, p.253.