Labour Monthly, May 1943

Indian Crisis

by Ben Bradley
Vice-President, All-India T.U.C. 1928-1929

Source: Labour Monthly, May 1943, pp. 153-158, Bill Bradley;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Secretary of State for India, Mr. Amery, moved in Parliament on March 30, “That this House approves the continuance in force of the Proclamation issued under Section 93 of the Government of India Act, etc., etc. ...”

Mr. Amery in this motion was asking Parliament to sanction, for a further period, complete dictatorial powers for the Viceroy and Governors in India. It is true that in the opening remarks of his speech he said that “This and other motions on the order paper are concerned with only six out of the eleven Provinces of British India.”

Here, then, Mr. Amery asks Parliament to give complete dictatorial powers to these six Governors and he tells the House that it is because of the attitude of the Congress that the Government was forced to take this step in 1939. In the other five provinces we are told there is self-government and that self-government will be resumed in the six provinces as soon as Ministers can be found in a position to conduct affairs.

What is this self-government in the five provinces with self-government? We had some insight into this “Self-Government” when the Premier of Sind was forced to resign some time ago.

The latest example is Bengal. On March 27, the Premier of Bengal resigned. On the afternoon of his resignation the Premier, Mr. Fazlul Huq, disclosed that his resignation was prompted by the Governor of Bengal in a ninety-minute talk in which the formation of a National Cabinet and other proposals were discussed. The Governor made some proposals which, Mr. Huq said, he could not accept consistently with self-government. “Despite what has happened,” he said, “I maintain and am confident that I still enjoy the confidence of the majority of the House.” Nevertheless, he was forced to resign by the Governor of Bengal.

There is therefore very little difference between rule through Emergency Powers and this type of “self-government.”

It is strange, however, that Mr. Amery should, in his speech in the House, continue to talk of Congress Dictatorship. This comes ill from the lips of Amery while defending his types of dictatorship.

India, for the past nine months, since August 8, 1942, has been racked by the deepest political crisis. On August 9 Congress Leaders were arrested and the deadlock made complete. It seems, from the events during the intervening period, and by the character and tone of Mr. Amery’s speech, that the Government are determined that the deadlock should remain. Yet, with the world locked in deadly combat, with the threat to India of Japanese invasion creating an urgent military situation, to allow the deadlock to continue is criminally suicidal. This disastrous political situation has already had serious repercussions upon the economic life of India and aggravated the food situation to the point of famine.

In order to pave the way for the request to Parliament to sanction a further period of dictatorial powers in India, the Government published a White Paper.

This document was to have condemned the Congress in the eyes of the world. Mr. Amery based his speech on this collection of extracts from statements and writings alleged to have been issued by the Congress and individuals. In order to make a case the Government have had to resort to the use of a number of spurious documents which were certainly not Congress, and which they, in any event, would have the utmost difficulty in proving authentic.

The speeches of Mr. Amery and Mr. Attlee, on behalf of the Government in the House, can have no other effect than the further embittering of relations between this country and India. How we end this position and break through the barrage of lies and distortion?

An examination of the correspondence between Mr. Gandhi and the Viceroy will help one to get a correct picture. This correspondence is very revealing. Within a few days after his arrest last August Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy. The first letter sharply criticises the Government action of precipitating a crisis without considering the Congress case. In refuting the charge that the Congress wished to dominate minorities, the following paragraph in Gandhi’s letter is important:-

The Government of India have not condescended to consider the Congress offer that if simultaneously with the declaration of the Independence of India they could not trust the Congress to form a stable provisional Government, they should ask the Muslim League to do so, and that any National Government formed by the League would be loyally accepted by the Congress. Such an offer is hardly consistent with the charge of totalitarianism against the Congress.

The letter was a plea to the Government to reconsider its policy in regard to India, to which the Viceroy replied that he could not accept the criticism or the request for the Government to reconsider its policy. Gandhi wrote again on September 21, to which he received a formal acknowledgement. There was no further correspondence until December 31, when Gandhi again took the initiative and wrote to the Viceroy.

During this period the political situation had considerably deteriorated. With the continued imprisonment of the Congress Leaders bitter feeling ran high; the severest repression was met with sabotage and riots. The black tragedy of these last nine months is partly revealed in replies to questions in Parliament by the Secretary of State for India, Mr. Amery. 40,000 anti-Fascist fighters are behind prison bars, 15,000 without trial. To another question Mr. Amery replied:-

My information relates to the period from August 9 to November 30, during which 1,028 persons lost their lives in connection with the disturbances, and 3,215 were more or less seriously injured. During the same period 958 sentences of whipping, or as it should be described, of caning, were imposed in British India, excluding the United Provinces for which figures have not been included.

The Communist Party of India, along with the Trade Unions, Peasant Organisations and Student Movement, gave the lead against sabotage and to win the people for Unity in the fight against Fascism.

In response to the call for National Unity, leaders of various sections held the important Conference in Allahabad in September last year. Mr. Rajagopalachari, former Premier of the Government of Madras Province, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, representing Liberal opinion; the representatives of the Trade Union Congress; the All-India Peasant Committee; and the Communist Party, all agreed to proposals which they believed would form the basis of agreement. The main question was: How to discuss these proposals with the Congress leaders? Permission was sought on the basis of a widely signed appeal to the Viceroy that Mr. Rajagopalachari should be allowed to visit Gandhi. This was refused.

The Government were professing that the only thing that prevented a settlement in India was the question of Unity among the Indians themselves, but they were responsible for preventing the Indians getting together to formulate proposals that would overcome the impasse. In attempting to break this disastrous political deadlock, for which the Government were wholly responsible, Gandhi reopened correspondence with the Viceroy on December 31, 1942. Mr. Gandhi followed up the Viceroy’s short reply on January 19, saying that he could not remain “.... a helpless witness to what is going on in the country, including the privations of millions owing to universal scarcity stalking the land.” Here he is referring to the terrible economic conditions, famine and starvation at present the main feature of India. He concluded this letter as follows:-

To sum up: (1) If you want me to act singly, convince me that I was wrong and I will make ample amends. (2) If you want me to make any proposal on behalf of Congress you should put me among the Congress Working Committee Members. I do plead with you to make up your mind to end the impasse.

The Viceroy, in his reply to this letter, ignored Gandhi’s request to confer with other members of the Working Committee and said he was anxious to learn of “any specific propositions” from Gandhi. Further, if Gandhi repudiated and dissociated himself from the resolution of August 9, then he (the Viceroy) would consider the matter further.

Gandhi sent a letter in reply on January 29:-

You have not even said what part of the August resolution is bad or offensive in your opinion. That resolution is in no way a retraction by Congress of its policy of non-violence. It is definitely against Fascism in every shape or form. It tenders co-operation in the war effort under circumstances which alone can make effective and nation-wide co-operation possible. Is all this open to reproach? Objection may be raised to that clause of the resolution which contemplated civil disobedience. The manifesto by itself cannot constitute an objection since the principle of civil disobedience is implicitly conceded in what is known as the Gandhi-Irwin pact. Even that civil disobedience was not to be started before knowing the result of the meeting for which I was to seek from you an appointment.

Referring to the tragic situation which had resulted in India, Gandhi said: –

Add to this tale of woe the privations of the poor millions due to India-wide scarcity, which I cannot help thinking might, have been largely mitigated, if not altogether prevented, had there been a bona fide National Government responsible to a popularly elected Assembly.

The Viceroy, in his replies, as the correspondence developed, was determined not to be in any way conciliatory. The last letter contained a sinister threat that charges were being prepared in respect of violence, and that Gandhi and other Congress leaders would have to clear themselves before world opinion. But Gandhi asks for evidence – which is not forthcoming – and turns to the Viceroy, saying: –

You have condemned men and women before trying them and hearing their defence.

This correspondence showed the intense desire of Gandhi to find a way out of the deadlock, while the attitude of the Viceroy was obdurate. It must be admitted, despite the fact that Gandhi was imprisoned, that he took the initiative towards conciliation. He backed this up with his fast. Here the Government courted catastrophe and disaster. Special instructions were issued to the press on how to handle news arising out of this situation, and with the radio every effort was made to belittle the ever-growing support for the cause which Gandhi symbolised.

One of the most disturbing incidents, for the Government, in connection with this period under review, was the resignation of three members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council – the Minister of Supply, Sir H.P. Mody; The Minister of Education, Mr. N.R. Sarkar; and the Minister of Indians Overseas, Mr. H.S. Aney. So that, while the Viceroy in his letter to Gandhi made reference to the fact that the repression of the Congress was endorsed by the Viceroy’s Council, these three Indians wanted to end the deadlock, and were not prepared to follow the Viceroy in his disastrous policy.

A meeting took place in Delhi of 200 prominent politicians of all parties, except the Congress (because they were unable to be present) calling for the release of Gandhi. Although their meeting did not secure this, it did take the question of Unity a big step forward.

Insistent demands for the release of Gandhi and the reopening of negotiations poured in from working-class and peasant organisations right through to the Central Legislative Assembly, where they were voiced by Mr. N.M. Joshi, the Labour representative.

The Communist Party of India issued a manifesto in which they declared that the “future of the Indian nation depends on whether we get Gandhi out or not.” This is as true to-day as it was when Gandhi was undertaking his fast. The manifesto went on to say that Gandhi’s stand was “a desperate summons to the entire nation to save itself from extinction,” and made a strong appeal to all patriots to unite, and in Gandhi’s name called for the stopping of sabotage and the smashing of fifth column elements. Prison bars, it stated, are now the main obstacle to Congress-League agreement, and the National Government which the League desires as much as the Congress.

The Communist Party’s call for Congress-League Unity is not just a mere slogan. Readers will have studied the extremely capable and clear case put by G. Adhikari in the document “Pakistan and National Unity” which appeared in a previous issue. Our Indian comrades knew that their document and resolution presented the means of overcoming the barriers built up by the Government in order to prevent the fulfilment of the national demand.

Throughout the world grave concern was aroused in respect of India, and although people like Lord Halifax, in New York, stressed the point that Britain would not tolerate intervention on this question, American Press and American opinion were greatly disturbed. In this country Mr. Amery had to admit that he had been inundated with resolutions and demands from influential bodies and working-class organisations, not only for the release of Gandhi and the Congress leaders, but for the reopening of negotiations. Members of Parliament were also lobbied on this question. Meetings were held all over the country, and particularly important was the meeting held in the House of Commons by Members of Parliament and others. Those present included Canon Holland, Miss Agatha Harrison; the Rev. H. Carter; Mr. H.H. Elvin (ex-Chairman of the Trade Union Congress); Mr. P. Sloan, M.P., Mr. Silverman, M.P., Miss Agnes Hardy, M.P., Mr. B. Riley, M.P., Mr. R. Richards, M.P., Mr. R.W. Dobbie, M.P., The Rev. Sorensen, M.P., Lord Strabolgi, etc.

A deputation from this meeting waited on Mr. Amery, the Secretary of State for India, who gave no hope for a change of Government Policy, but hinted that with regard to the question of contact between Gandhi and, Congress Leaders, and Gandhi and other Indian leaders, this may be considered when Gandhi’s fast had terminated. This hope now seems as far off as ever.

The Manchester Guardian, in a leading article on February 20, strongly criticised the way the Government is handling the situation in India. It says: –

Does the public of this country realise that between August 8 and December 1 of last year, 60,229 Indians were arrested; that on December 39,498 were still under arrest; that the police opened fire on 470 occasions and the troops on 68? Whosever the original responsibility, these terrible figures certainly increase ours now.

It refers to, and quotes from, the Gandhi-Viceroy correspondence, and draws attention to the fact that if the Viceroy had accepted Gandhi’s proposals that he be put among the working committee of the Congress, and that if other representative Indian Leaders like Mr. Rajagopalachari were allowed to visit them in prison, a way out may have been found. In any event no harm would result. This article goes on to say: “The truth is that, whether the Indian Government and any of the rest of us like it or not, Mr. Gandhi has opened a new phase.” It then suggests that the opportunity should now be taken for the reopening of negotiations.

The main concern at the moment is to end the deadlock, and make it possible for the Indian people to tackle the serious problems confronting them: the defence of their country, the economic situation, and so on.

On April 1 in Delhi, a deputation of Indian leaders submitted a Memorandum and asked the Viceroy to receive a deputation. The memorandum once again asked if the Viceroy would allow a few of the leaders to discuss with Gandhi to ascertain authoritatively his reactions to events, and to explore avenues of reconciliation. The memorandum stated: “We feel that though order might have been restored on the surface, every day that passes without a solution of the Indian problem intensifies the hostility between Britain and India, and renders any future solution more and more difficult to attain, until we apprehend it may become even impossible. We are convinced that Gandhi’s assistance is essential for restoration of good-will and for a solution of the problem even for an interim period, including an adjustment of Hindu-Moslem claims. On the other hand, unpleasant as it is, we cannot help feeling that refusing to permit us to have any contact with Gandhi now would be equivalent to a determination on the part of Great Britain that there should be no attempt at a settlement of the problem, and no reconciliation between nationalist India and Britain. The situation is growing more and more serious every day, and we feel that a Government commanding the loyal and affectionate co-operation of all the people can be constituted for the period of war only if we are permitted to talk with Gandhi, consult him and obtain his support. The request that we make is intended to achieve this object.”

The actions of Mr. Amery completely contradict his words. He concluded his speech in the House by speaking about our good-will to India and our desire to help towards a settlement, Yet within twenty-four hours these Indian leaders received an unwarranted rebuke from the Viceroy and a blank refusal to their request to be allowed to consult Gandhi and the Congress leaders on this question.

How is it possible to overcome the deadlock if the leaders of the most important political organisations are completely cut off from outside contact. The police guards are increased – the Congress leaders are hermetically sealed against the outside world. The reactions of the leaders who received the rebuke are serious. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru characterises the Commons debate on India as the most fatuous for the last four years, and in respect of the reply of the Viceroy to their memorandum he observed that it was most unfair, and says: “A National Government is meaningless without the consent and support of all parties.”

Mr. Rajagopalachari, commenting on the Viceroy’s action, said: “I must infer from the Viceroy’s reply that the Government not only do not desire reconciliation, but wish to humiliate the Congress.”

Repression continues, bitterness grows and the deadlock remains – a completely indefensible situation. The Gandhi correspondence shows that the Congress is ready and willing to make their contribution to a solution of the deadlock. They must be allowed to do so.

We must, as our contribution, bring pressure to bear upon the Government to end immediately the policy of repression; to release all anti-Fascist political prisoners, and reopen negotiations with Congress leaders and leaders of other political organisations on the question of the immediate establishment of a composite Provisional Government for India.