MILESTONES ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
BY HIREN MUKHERJEE
TODAY IS A RED-LETTER DAY IN INDIA’S ANNALS. TWO DOMINIONS EMERGE-INDIA AND PAKISTAN-AS NEAR TO INDEPENDENCE AAS ANY STTE, OUT SIDE THE CATEGORY OF GREAT POWERS, CAN EXPECT TO BE IN AN INTER-DEPENDENT WORLD. IT IS, THEREFORE, A HISTORIC LANDMARK, A DAY OF GOOD CHEER AND YET OF A BECOMING SOLEMNITY.
This in spite of the fact, which cannot be gainsaid, that few people in India today are in a mood of real rejoicing. To our wonted economic woes have lately been added the agonies of a senseless communal carnage that has seared India’s soul and besmirched her fair reputation.
Bengal and the Punjab, two of India’s vanguard provinces in the struggle for freedom, have had to pay cruelly of the country’s leaders’ inability to pull together, and to accept artificial bifurcation of their soil. Freedom, besides coming in today’s context more as a gift from Britain than as a yearned- for prizxe won by strenuous battle, carries rightly or wrongly implications that India’s militant nationalism may not find too savoury.
But for all that the governance of India todayh becomes the Indians’ own unhampered concern: flags of indigenous design and connotation replace the Union Jack; a stage opens when we have the opportunity to mould the shape of our India nearer to our heart’s desire.
On this day, then of all days one should recall the past, pay homage to the maryrs and leaders who have gone before and re-learn whaterver lessons the story of our march to independence still has for us.
Even before the foundation in 1885 of the Indian National Congress, the premier and still the most powerful organization of the Indian national movement, there were efforts made, in comparatively primitive fashion, to oust British power from this country. The Wahabis, armed with the ideology of Islamic Puritanism, conducted during a large part of the nineteenth century a religio-agrarian movement which proved a menace to Government. The working masses, from time to time, as in the Indigo Riots of 1859-60 in Bengal, made the administration in certain regions fairly impossible.
Most spectacular of all pre-1885 attempts to throw off the foreign yoke was, of course, the Mutiny of 1857, when Hindus and Muslims, united by xenophobia, fought desperately to demolish the growing structure of Britain’s empire in India. None of these were full fledged national movements, but they all, in various ways, presaged the future. By destroying in India the foundations of the old order of society, Britain had been, in karl Marx’s words, “the unconscious tool of history” in the development of India, which in time was bound to “throw off the English ‘yoke altogether.”
Birth of Congress
The history of India’s national movement is often traced back to the foundation of the Congress in 1885. Alan Octavian Hume, “Father of the Indian National Congress” and Lord Dufferin, the then viceroy, had more than a hand in the business, but the Congress would have emerged anyhow, Hume or no Hume, and since the setting up in Bengal of the British India Society in 1843 and more notably the Indian Association in 1875, indications were not wanting that educated Indians, inspired largely by British Constitutional ideals, would have an all-Indian political organization. It is significant, as seen in a memorandum prepared by Hume and quoted by his biographer. Sir William Wedderburn, that in the early eighties “poor men pervaded with a sense of the hopelessness of the existing state of affairs......were going to do something and stand by each other, and that something meant violence; that a ‘terrible revolution’ might ensue since a certain small number of the educated classes would join the movement, assume here and there the lead, give the outbreak cohesion and direct it as a national revolt.” (W. Wedderburn, “Alan Octavian Hume,”1913, pp. 80-81.101).
Part of the reason, therefore, for official sponsoring of the Congress was that he desired to see it function as a sort of insurance against “revolution.” Soon enough of course the stormy potentialities of Congress began to be apparent, and Dufferin, who has helped it into being, sought to pooh-pooh it as representative only of a “microscopic minority.” It indicates, clearly, the double standard in the role of the Congress ever since; on the one hand, it has been a safety valve against the “menace” of mass movement, and on the other, it has been the leader, ineluctably, of the masses in the national struggle.
There have been four main stages in India’s march towards independence; the first (1905-10) comprising what is usually called the Swadeshi movement, mainly in Bengal, Maharashtra and the Punjab, with repercussions elsewhere; the second (1919-22), when Mahatma Gandhi sent out his clarion call for non-violent non-co-operation and roused the country as never before; the third (1930-34), when again he stirred India with his program me of civil disobedience; and the fourth (1940-46)’ when the people’s militancy, risen to a new qualitative pitch and assisted by the dynamic world, achieved results that are visible today.
Elements whose variegation was not and could not be eliminated have played their part throughout. Hindus and Muslims have fought often together but sometimes as distinguishable strands, notably since1940, when the Muslim League declared the two-nation theory and its goal of Pakistan. A large part in the movement has been played, particularly since the late ‘twenties by the working class and still later the peasantry, growing to class consciousness and linking class objectives with the more immediate and widely shared urgency of a national democratic settlement.
Admiration of the British constitution and hope of sharing its blessings marked the early policy of the Congress but forces soon began to develop which drew sustenance from the European literature of revolt, from pride in India’s storied past and from examples of successful action against foreign domination. A self-confident militancy fortified by all that was heroic and splendid in India’s own traditions, and “romantic, mystical, aggressive” quasi-religious appeals for the restoration of the country’s self-respect, were propagated by people as diverse as Dayan and, Talk and Eurobond Chose and Brahmabandhab Upadhyay.
The ideology was largely Hindu in coloration bhut it bore no conscious antagonism towards the Muslims. It was a declaration of war on “political mendicancy,” and when Lord Curzon decreed in 1905 the partition of Bengal, India’s largest and most advanced province, Bengal did not just groan in agony: she roared in protest meetings and demonstrations were held on an unheard –of scale, the boycott of British goods made striking strides, and the province’s pent-up patriotism found vent in the form of stirring songs unmatched before or since, songs that suggest strongly that it was “bliss in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven”.
It was not till 1912 that the “settled fact” of the partition of Bengal was “unsettled,” but meanwhile, the Congress had split into “moderates” and “extremists,” a reconciliation in 1916 lasting no longer than a few years, and the latter, especially with Mahatma Gandhi’s advent, held from 1918 onwards a virtual monopoly of the organization. More notably, the terrorist movement in the offing since the nineties of the last century had reared its head. This trend, born of sheer patriotic desperation and the noble impatience which accompanies all emotional upsurges, continued as a factor in Indian politics till the early ‘thirties. Almost all ex-terrorists today have lost faith in their early creed, but terrorism was in the Indian context an inevitable phenomenon, it instilled, whatever its deficiencies ethically or politically, a new fearlessness and a whole-hogging passion for freedom. No Indian will ever pour obloquy on the terrorists; for all their mistakes, they were the salt of our Indian earth.
During world war, attempts were made to secure foreign assistance for freeing the country. Muslims and Hindus took part in them, the former “out of hum our with the British Government,” in the words of the Rowlett Committee, largely because of Britain’s attitude towards Turkey. The congress and the Muslim League (founded in 1906, with Government playing a part in its establishment very similar to that in the case of the Congress in 1885), supported the war in effusive resolutions, but the country’s temper was growing to be menacing. And when the war ended and a myriad economic problems flared up and the Russian revolution stood out as a challenge to all the powers that be, India was ripe for the movement which Mahatma Gandhi came out in all his glory to organize and direct.
The story of 1920-22, the Congress-Khilafat movement of non-co-operation, cannot be told in a few words. That was the time when the Congress said goodbye to its old-time respectability and stood out as leader of the masses, the focus of a united and militant national movement. Muslims led by the Ali Brothers, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Abul Kalam Azad and many others joined in with spirit and determination. All over India, there was expectation, following on Mahatma Gandhi’s repeated prophecies, that freedom was coming before the year 1921 was rung out. The people’s strength found vent in massive herbals, notably on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ tour, and in the peasantry’s no-tax campaigns. But all was to be in vain; 1922 came and Swaraj was nowhere in sight. Mahatma Gandhi insisted on a standard of non-violence which his militant followers found impossible, and in February 1922 the non-co-operation movement was withdrawn.
All over the country, exultation gave way to depression and for quite some time India sulked and sorrowed C.R.Das, with Motilal Nehru as his chief lieutenant, came out with scheme of entreing the legislature, set up by the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms Act of 1919 and boycotted so long by the Congress, with a programmed of persistent obstruction. It injected some little life into the body politic, but not as much as was wanted.
In desperation, impatient patriots took recourse again to individual terrorism. Hindus and Muslims, drawn so close together in the great days of 1920-21, fell again apart, quarreled over the loaves and fishes of office and with politics lacking fire communal riots came to be a melancholy feature. Things began to look up only when all the parties that mattered decided to boycott the all-white Simon Commission sent out in 1928 to judge India’s fitness for the next round of reforms. Organization of the working class, which was to be a great ally of the national movement, also went on apace, as witness the Cawnpore Bolshevik Conspiracy Case of 1924 the formation of Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, and the much more celebrated Meerut Conspiracy Case which was instituted in order first to drive a wedge between the working class and the national movement, and secondly, to decapitate the rising working-class organization by stowing away its leaders for long terms.
Not for long could India be kept in leash, however, the Congress in 1929 declared its goal of complete independence and the next year 1930 Mahatma Gandhi re-emerged with his civil disobedience movement.
The struggle of 1930-32 remains vivid in many memories, With a short respite, when Mahatma Gandhi attended the London Round Table Conference in 1931 it raged, fairly relentlessly, for in the first round the number of civil resisters was about 90,000, and in the second about 80,000. It was a distressing finale to and inspiriting drama when the Congress leadership decided in May 1934 to call it off, but it left rich lessons, pride in our common people and determination to fight till freedom was won.
What followed has been too recent to require much elucidation. Since 1936 the Congress acquired, thanks largely to pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, a new militancy and reflected, as much as a bourgeois-led organization could, the rising tempo of the working class and peasantry’s movement. The Congress Achilles heel however, was the Muslim problem; the alienation since 1922 had never really been healed, the Congers’ Contact with Muslim Masses, as Nehru admitted, was fortuitous and unsatisfactory. This cardinal defect has had to be too dearly paid for, and today, as we celebrate Indian independence, we see also regretfully the emergence of two Indians the unwillingness which one hopes and feels is only temporary of Muslims and Hindus to live and work in one proud State of their own.
During World War-II and since its termination, one saw many examples of our people’s strength in spite of the unfortunate estrangement between large sections of the two main communities. There has been no question that on the issue of independence all were unanimous. The and three years later defined it as Pakistan. The Congress, after its offer of co-operation with the war effort on what it considered honorable terms had been refused, experimented with individual satyagraha in 1940, and in 1942 launched the slogan of “Do of Die.”
The working class and the peasantry, in so far as it had a conscious class leadership, supported the war in its character of an anti-Fascist struggle with enormous potentialities for peoples liberation everywhere, but they never lagged behind in the demand for complete freedom. In March-April 1942 the British Government made a notable effort at understanding, but for varied and complex reasons, the Cripps Offer was in fructuous. And so in August 1942 and subsequent months there started another and a ruthless tug-of-war between Government and the people, the latter leaderless and striking in blind, spontaneous fury.
The struggle of our people for liberation reached a higher phase in 1945-46, when it could no longer be pleaded that the exigencies of war demanded the withholding of Indian freedom. Over the issue of the release of the Indian National Army prisoners, unprecedented demonstrations were held. The mutiny in the Royal Indian navy early in 1946 showed how the spirit of revolt and impatience with subjection had permeated the Armed Forces. Enormous working class upheavals, demonstrated most spectacularly in Calcutta on July 29, 1946, extensive agrarian uprisings in different parts of India and the heroic unassisted struggle of States people from Kashmir to Travancore, underlined the same thing. The British sought agreement, held conferences at Smile (1945-46) with national leaders; sent first a Parliamentary delegation and then the Cabinet Mission. Parleyed with every important group, and ultimately, when the dearly in the fruition of the people’s hopes and the failure of Congress and League leaders to come together helped to produce a calamitous situation of civil war between the communities, came out with legislation on Indian Independence. And it is in the terms of the Indian Independence Act of the British Parliament that today is being celebrated.
There is a suspicion, which cannot just be wished away, that our independence today has many a lacuna, that we have been proffered a piece of bread which might well taste like stone, that problems like that of the States and of Hindu-Muslim antagonism are the product of many and dubious machination. Such worries there are and will be; but that is no reason why Indian’s should not realize that, in spite of everything, a brave new perspective is opening, that nothing can prevent us, if only we make up our mind turning formal independence into substantial that even out of its apparent wreck our hope can and will create the thing it contemplates and Indian before long will play, united, her rightful role in world affairs.
*This article publish in the statesman on their supplement, issued on the day of the inauguration of the two new dominos of Pakistan and India. 15 Aug.1947