Labour Monthly

India Before Storm


Source : Labour Monthly May 1940, No. 5.
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). 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.

Since the outbreak of war the political crisis in India has matured with extreme rapidity. All the difficulties of British Imperialism in India and its fundamental conflict with the interests and welfare of the Indian people have been increased a hundredfold by the war situation. All the sunshine talk of the propagandists and the feverish scurrying around of the apostles of "negotiation" and "compromise" have failed to hide the fact that the deadlock between imperialism and the national movement still remains unresolved. On the contrary the Ramgarh Session of the Congress, though still leaving the main issues hanging in the air, has done nothing to make things easier for those (by no means only confined to the Viceroy's side) who hoped for a compromise.

To understand the real nature of the political crisis in India it is necessary to consider three aspects of the present situation, all of which are, of course, fundamentally inter-connected; firstly, the international significance of the weakening of British Imperialism's hold over its main strategic and economic stronghold; secondly, the historic stage of development of the national struggle; and thirdly, the growing tensions within the national movement itself which reflect the growth of new forces and the re-alignment of classes.

The significance for the whole world of the Indian challenge to British imperialism is tremendous. Within the first few months of the war, British Imperialism, the leading world imperialist power, is being seriously attacked in its most vital spot. Before the war has fully developed, before the masses in the belligerent countries are fully awake to the extent of suffering they will have to endure, the Indian people, and in particular the Indian working class, have thrown clown a clear challenge and are mobilising their forces for struggle. The effect of this challenge upon the subject people in other parts of the Empire has been far-reaching.

The strategic and economic importance of India to British Imperi¬alism is such that the present Indian crisis is having a profound effect upon the whole war effort of the British and French imperialists. British military writers recognise India as Britain's strategic base in the Far East, as well as providing almost unlimited man-power. This was so in the last war. It will be even more so in this war, as was empha¬sised in advance by the Chatfield Report on the reorganisation of the Army in India. A strong, and more or less self-supporting, force is required in the East not only for preserving internal order and for the protection of such strategic outposts as Aden and Singapore; but also as a striking force against the Soviet Union. In the last war troops from India were used for the invasion of Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Iran (Persia). Since it is clearly part of the British strategic plan to spread the war against the Soviet Union through those two countries, it is clear that India has to be considered as a "jumping-off ground" of the greatest importance in the event of the Allied war plans against the Soviet Union coming to maturity.

Not only strategically, but also economically, India is the pivot of the Empire. Some two-and-a-half times as much British capital is invested in India, according to Sir Robert Kindersley, as in all the rest of the colonial Empire put together. The exploitation of India, with its wealth of natural resources, has been developed to a far higher degree than elsewhere in the Empire and in the depth of the world economic crisis India was a valuable source of strength to British capitalism. In the period of four or five years some £250 million in gold was drained out of India, representing the savings of the middle peasantry who were unable to pay their taxes and meet their other commitments by the sale of their produce at world prices.

Strategically and economically, therefore, India is the keystone of the British Empire, the basis of a ruling class whose foreign-political aim is to develop the war against the Soviet Union and whose economic power rests on its super-profits reaped from the exploitation of the colonial peoples.

That it is at this very point that the edifice shows signs of cracking and that the people are already in active revolt against the war, is of tremendous significance for the forces of world socialism in their struggle against monopoly capitalism and in defence of the Soviet Union.

In the last world war, India was made to carry enormous burdens and imperialism revealed its naked aggressiveness. But the movements for liberation were in an early and undeveloped stage. The Indian National Congress was still a small bourgeois party petitioning the Viceroy for more adequate representation for Indians in the services and for preferential tariffs for Indian industry; from 1906 its most militant section turned to acts of individual terrorism; the working class was unorganised and in general unacquainted with the strike weapon; the peasantry, though driven by starvation to sporadic outbreaks of revolt, was unorganised and politically unconscious.

The politically conscious middle class believed the promises and the slogans presented to them by the imperialists, and they faithfully followed the lead of those whom imperialism had bought over with minor concessions of a constitutional or commercial nature. It was only at the end of the war that discontent began to find open expression. Infected by the world revolutionary movement, the first wave of big strikes, the first real attack upon the foundations of British imperialism in India, took place in the years 1918-1921. In those years, in the course of bitter struggle and military terror, the nationalist movement was born and the ground prepared for its development to the powerful striking force that it is to-day.

The record of imperialism during the post-war period is a record of intensified aggression against every section of the Indian people. Its urgent necessity to preserve its exclusive control over the colonial markets without interference either from rival imperialists or from the rising colonial bourgeoisie, is reflected in the Ottawa Agreements, Tariff and Currency policies and so on. As the contradictions of capitalism develop this aggressiveness of imperialist rule sharpens and is seen in an increasingly uncompromising attitude towards the Indian bourgeoisie, a deepening of the already advanced agrarian crisis and a savage attack upon working-class conditions and organisations.

The 1935 Constitution sums up with a clarity that constitutional verbosity is unable to obscure, both the difficulties and the aims of British Imperialism in India. Whilst giving some minor and unreal concessions in the provincial sphere, it securely planted real political power in the hands of the Viceroy and meticulously hedged it in with innumerable safeguards. At the same time it revealed the vital necessity of completely removing economic, financial and military power from the sphere in which "responsible" ministers were to operate; and it perfected, with apt imperialist cunning, a plan for the constitutional enslavement of the people of India to the reactionary princes in alliance with vested interests and communalists. The alliance with reaction was consolidated; the new democratic forces were to be effectually stifled.

Thus, with the outbreak of war an already critical situation was brought to a head. It was inevitable that the negotiations conducted with the Viceroy, after the outbreak of the war, should fail to find a suitable way out for those who hoped for a compromise and, with pathetic innocence, regarded India's challenging opposition to the war simply as a bargaining counter in a verbal debate with imperialism. The whole history of the last twenty-five years has shown a progressively narrowing basis for compromise. The Viceroy saw no alternative but to give an "insolent" and uncompromising reply to the Indian demand; and the growing pressure of the masses from below made it impossible for the Congress leaders to suggest a compromise that would be accept¬able.

To-day, with the outbreak of the second imperialist war, the demand, first formulated in 1930, is for clear-cut independence and an end to the British connection. From the outset of the war the conflict has been sharp and undisguised. The tendency to compromise, still strong in some quarters, is hampered by the whole history and experience of 25 years; and the political experience of the masses during those years has strengthened them against their being again misled by deceptive slogans.

Accompanying the growing tension between imperialism and Congress, tension within the national movement itself grows increasingly acute. The class struggle is maturing, and this maturity is sharply reflected in the course the Congress takes. The magnificent Bombay strike on October 2, the wave of strikes sweeping across India — Allahabad, Cawnpore, Calcutta, etc. -- the decision of the Bombay T.U.C. to declare general strikes in support of the demand, for a 40 per cent. war bonus, culminating in the present strike of 150,000 Bombay Textile workers, and the mass meetings demonstrations and resolutions taking place in every locality and industry (including railways) -- all these events present overwhelming evidence that the Indian masses are already on the path of struggle. This activity sharpens the conflict between Left and Right within the Congress, and makes the mass pressure irresistible.

The growth of the strong left-wing movement in India dates from the big strike movement in 1928, the subsequent nation-wide struggle in 1930, and the disillusionment of the masses with Gandhi's betrayals in the following years. This disillusionment, strongly felt by the younger elements within the Congress who were turning towards socialism, resulted not in weakening the Congress but in broadening its basis amongst the masses. Under the first provincial elections (February, 1937) Congress was swept into office in eight provinces with big majorities on a programme of "Wreck the Constitution" and radical labour and peasant reforms.

In two and a half years Congress membership leapt from 600,000 to five million.

The left wing, including Nehru, opposed acceptance of office in the provinces, fearing that the growing mass movement would be abandoned in favour of orthodox parliamentary methods and that imperialism would succeed in enticing the Congress ministers into constitutional co-operation.

The achievements of the Congress Ministries were not very remarkable; the bare fringe of the social problem was touched and the ministers tended to function bureaucratically. The ministries, restrained on the one hand by their financial impotence and by the power in the hands of the civil service were, on the other hand, more and more clearly anxious to conciliate vested interests who were opposed to radical land and labour reforms. Notably, in Behar the Congress Ministers sided with the landlords against the peasants, and in Bombay they introduced reactionary anti-working-class trades union legislation.

In this situation conflict between the organised workers and peasants and the Congress governments was inevitable and became increasingly frequent. Mass activities were carried on to bring pressure to bear upon the Congress Ministries; criticism was not hidden and became more sharp; big demonstrations were staged and independent class actions for the remedy of pressing grievances increased in frequency and militancy. The Congress Ministers, unwilling to comply with the demands, complained that they were being embarrassed, tried to restrain the masses and finally resorted to police orders to suppress these activities.

Whilst it was the working-class and peasant leaders, communists and socialists, who led the masses in these "embarrassing" activities, there was simultaneously developing within the Congress a strong movement of radical discontent amongst the petty bourgeoisie and unemployed youth who saw no hope of progress from "working the Constitution" under the supervision of the British Viceroy.

The crisis developing within the Congress as a result of this growing dissatisfaction and the increased mass activities came to a head with the re-election in 1939 of Subhas Bose as Congress President in opposition to the nominee of Gandhi and the Congress Working Committee. The left-wing voted solidly for Bose and were followed by the large mass of Congress delegates who, on this straightforward issue of "struggle" or "no struggle," unhesitatingly stood for a positive step forward.

Bose's re-election was immediately recognised by the imperialists and the Gandhists alike as a significant indication of the temper of the country and the growing influence of the left wing in the national movement. The subsequent re-establishment of Gandhi's authority and the old leadership simply revealed the organisational weakness of the left and its inability to give a practical lead that was capable of steering the people clear of the personalities and the side issues which were utilised to obscure the major political issue. Bose himself lacked either the political qualities or the solid mass support to give this lead, and the way was left open for a disciplinary drive within the Congress. At this critical moment Nehru stood aloof and failed to give a lead; by condemning the activities of the Left he gave the appearance of lining up with the Right wing and facilitating their attempts to take disciplinary action against the Left elements.

The key to the present rising tide of national struggle is to be found in the new vigour of the Trade Union movement and its proven ability to initiate a mass struggle. The movement achieved unity in 1938 and, though its membership still is only reckoned to be 380,000, the last few years have witnessed tremendous activities which have drawn into action thousands of unorganised workers. 1938 saw the highest number yet of workers involved in strikes (over 650,000); but already in the first six months of the war it is reckoned that over 400,000 have been involved, mainly in the big industrial centres of Bombay, Calcutta, Cawnpore, Allahabad and Ahmedabad. And this is in spite of increased repression, the wholesale arrest of leaders and the use of the Defence of India Act to extern trade union organisers and to prohibit meetings and the distribution of leaflets. Of particular importance is unparalleled spread of the strike movement to small out-of-the-way and unorganised industries. The close association of the workers in these isolated factories with the peasantry is an important factor in the development of peasant organisations and their growing political consciousness.

Since the war we have the news of the magnificent strike of 90,000 workers in Bombay against the war (about which the nationalist press remained absolutely silent), the successful strike of 30,000 in Cawnpore, successful strike of 36,000 in Calcutta, strike in Ahmedabad for war bonus, strike in Digboi oilfields, the successful strike of 15,000 Calcutta scavengers, and the present stoppage of 150,000 in Bombay on the demand for 25 per cent. war bonus. On Independence Day more than 50 factories stopped work for the day.

The peasant movement, only organised on an all-India basis for three or four years, is one of the most significant developments of recent years and one which, because of its ideology and its class-consciousness, must necessarily give an entirely new complexion to any national struggle in the future. It has a membership of nearly one million and is particularly strong in Behar, United Provinces and Madras.

Amongst the peasantry there is a very keen interest in the achievement of the Soviet Union in freeing the peasants from their age-old bondage to the landlords, and in recent years the amount of socialist literature circulating in the vernacular languages has increased enormously.

Thus, whilst the Congress is still calling for discipline and restraint, a movement is developing from below on a popular basis which is drawing into action workers, peasants, students and large sections of the petty-bourgeoisie. It is clear that such a movement has the organisational task of uniting all the active anti-imperialist forces, basing itself upon the feeling of the masses and being prepared to sweep forward the Congress into action on a national scale. It will be necessary to overcome sectional differences on the Left and give an increasingly clearly defined political leadership that will represent the rising movement of workers and peasants without whom no national movement is possible. The other left groups are disintegrating; only the communists have a record of persistent day-to-day work in the different sectors of the national movement, and they have a responsible role to play in continuing to give this political lead, to give it clearly as the most active and advanced section of the anti-imperialist front, and to strengthen support in the working class and peasant organisations.

In the present situation it is clear that the vast majority of the politically conscious people are prepared for struggle; and that the brunt of the struggle must fall on just those sections of the people over whom the influence of the communists has extended most during the last three years -- the workers, the peasants and the radical bourgeoisie. This fact completely alters the complexion of any future struggle.

It is against this background of rising mass struggle that the moves of imperialism and of the upper national leadership acquire significance. It is clear that the basis for negotiations between the Congress and the Viceroy has necessarily been narrowed down by the growing acuteness of imperialist contradictions; the contradictions within the Congress are also extremely sharp. The prospect of a mass struggle fills Mr. Gandhi with feelings of horror and foreboding. He writes in his paper Harijan : "It has been suggested to me that as soon as I declare civil disobedience, I shall find a staggering response. The whole labour world and kisans (peasants) in many parts of India will declare a simultaneous strike. If that happened I should be most embarrassed and all my plans would be upset. I must confess that I have no plan in front of me. Let me say that God will send the plan." He says: "I have not lost faith in Britain. I like the pronouncement of the Viceroy. I believe in his sincerity. "Or again "…. If I cannot discover a method of non-violent action or inaction .... nothing on earth can prevent an outbreak of violence resulting in anarchy and red ruin."

Gandhi still wields great influence over the Indian people. He also speaks for that very powerful, though numerically small, section of the national movement whose interests, while still basically opposed to imperialism, are also fundamentally threatened by the prospect of a mass struggle which cannot but differ radically from the previous civil disobedience movements. These people are feverishly trying to persuade themselves that a "compromise with honour" is still possible. They pretend to bang the door on negotiations with each succeeding declaration of their determined opposition to imperialism; the wordy challenge is thrown down again and again in the hope that the Viceroy will scuttle his ship. But always the door miraculously remains open for further negotiation.

The Viceroy, by no means innocent at this game, hopes to use this section of the Congress as a means of disrupting and smashing the national unity; they themselves hope to use the mass discontent as a means of screwing some small concessions out of the Viceroy.

The All-India Congress Committee meeting at Wardha reflected the increased tension between the protagonists. On the one hand bitter resentment at the Viceroy's apparent "insolence" and refusal to play ball; on the other, barely concealed panic at the thought of having to apply mass sanctions against imperialism. Plenty of strong statements were made, but the inevitable door was left ajar. Nehru himself hesitatingly professed to believe that it was yet possible for imperialism, by a noble gesture, to transfer power to India and thereby to convert the imperialist war into a "just" war.

In this tense atmosphere and against the background of the Bombay Textile strike, the Congress annual session took place at Ramgarh on March 19. The arrest of hundreds of communists all over India, including Comrades Dange, Ghate, Mirajkar, Lahiri and Ranadive, of the popular socialists Jai Prakash Narain and S. Zaheer, of the T.U.C. officials such as R.S. Nimbkar and Parulekar, both well known in this country, as well as hundreds of active Congressmen and students, hung like a shadow over the meeting and impressed the delegates with the critical situation before them.

Jawarharlal Nehru moved the main resolution of the meeting, declaring again India's firm determination not to lend any support to the imperialist war, demanding complete independence and the right to call a Constituent Assembly in order to frame her own consti¬tution. The resolution was passed almost unanimously, but only after several speakers from the Left had disowned the present policy of inaction and had declared that the people were united behind the Congress demands, but wanted those demands to be supported by immediate action.

Thus, whilst the outward appearance of the Congress after Tripuri is one of unimpaired and absolute determination to oppose the imperi¬alist war and to lead the struggle for independence, it is clear that discontent inside the party with the present leadership is strong and that the unity desired is unity for struggle. The exclusion of Bose from participation in the proceedings weakened the Left and once more raised irrelevant personal issues.

The Times joyfully leaps to the conclusion that Ramgarh represents. a crushing victory for Gandhi and the moderates over the "extrem¬ists," the communists and socialists. Gandhi, it is true, retains control as a virtual dictator, and he demands implicit obedience to his general¬ship and his interpretation of Congress policy. The Right wing retains undisputed leadership and, despite all their brave words, have not yet taken the positive step forward to active struggle which is demanded by the majority of Congressmen.

The vital decision for the Indian people is left hanging in the air; and, so far as official resolution is concerned, it rests with Gandhi to decide how, when and if struggle will be launched -- whether it shall be active non-violence or non-violent inaction.

But even The Times has soberly to admit that as yet no solution is in sight and will not be so long as the Congress will not "see reason." in other words, the Right wing retains power, but, in spite of obvious tendencies to throttle down the mass movement, only at the cost of a declaration which leaves no obvious opening for a compromise. The task which the Communists imposed upon themselves at Tripuri one year ago to make the unity of Congress not an abstract unity but unity for struggle -- was the guiding principle of all advanced sections of the Congress at Ramgarh. They believe that it is possible, on the basis of Congress resolutions, to lead the people forward into a decisive struggle with imperialism, and that the time has now come, despite the fears and hesitations of Mr Gandhi to give practical expression to the many verbal declarations made by the leaders.

Underlying all the proceedings at Ramgarh, and apparent in the main speeches, was a serious sense of responsibility coupled with deep bitterness at the hundreds of arrests of militant Congressmen taking place daily. Tension was near to breaking point; in front of the delegates even Mr. Gandhi dared not speak of compromise. The determination of the people acts with relentless pressure upon the vacillating leadership.

How does the Labour Party leadership in this country react to the critical situation in India? They have, along with the rest of the propa¬gandists in the imperialist Press, consistently ignored the growing revolutionary ferment in India, the great strikes and the nation-wide opposition to war. They have not uttered a word of protest against the arrest of prominent officials in the Indian T.U.C. or the imprison¬ment of Congressmen. They have lined themselves up behind the Viceroy in refusing the demand of the Indian people for independence, and in offering an undefined and shadowy Dominion status, hedged in by safeguards, in the undefined and shadowy future.

They singly rebuke the Viceroy for his clumsy inability to dress the proposal for Dominion Status up in a disguise that will fool the Indian people and enable their leaders to find a basis for "compromise with honour." And in this they are consistent, not only with their past record of governing the Empire on behalf of the ruling class, but also with their present support of the imperialist war. Quite frankly Mr. Wedg¬wood Benn declared in the House of Commons on October 26 in the debate on India that "the over-riding consideration in the mind of every honourable member is how they can contribute to the successful issue of the war." India has to be drawn, whether by minor concessions or by force, into full support of the imperialist war with all her resources. That is the "over-riding consideration" for the Labour Party leaders.

But for the Indian people the "over-riding consideration" is their independence. Between these two viewpoints there is an unbridgeable gulf. On the one side stand the imperialists, including the Labour Party leaders; on the other side stand those who desire to free them¬selves, and all men, from the bondage of imperialist exploitation and who are already moving along the path of open struggle.

The objection of the Labour Party leaders to draw the Indian people into the war must be seen in relation to the alignment of forces within India itself. Purely verbal support is given to the Congress at the same time as complete support is given to the measures of imperialist repression. Under no circumstances is there any share in this line of policy except on the assumption that the Labour leaders believe that a compromise can be found which will satisfy both the Viceroy and the Congress Right wing.

Their whole attention is riveted on just that section of the Congress which wants to protract negotiations. They desire to use Nehru to bridge the gulf between the people of India and the Congress Right wing in precisely the same way as they are being used by imperialism to bridge the gulf between itself and the Congress.

But the crisis in India is not a crisis of polite political differences between leaders; it is not a crisis that can be solved in Viceregal reception rooms. It is the deep and fundamental crisis of imperialism which war has brought to a head in a period when the revolutionary anti-imperialist forces in India have acquired a new and unconquerable consciousness of their own strength. It is too late now to bandy about the phrases and constitutional futilities of 1919 and 1935. The cancer of British Imperialism in India has to be drastically cut away. The people, not individuals, are gathering their strength for the operation.

For the world and for the future of civilisation what is happening in India is of vital importance and full of hope.