Britain’s plunder of India

india Famine 1876

‘The British empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen.’

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India 1899–1905

• Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India

by Shashi Tharoor, Hurst and Company 2017, 296pp, £20

Shashi Tharoor has written a searing indictment of the British occupation of India, demonstrating how the colony was looted of its wealth, its industry destroyed, its development obstructed, its people impoverished and subjected to starvation and famine. It takes the form of a polemic against latter-day apologists for empire such as Niall Ferguson whom Tharoor cites as arguing that Britain’s empire promoted ‘the optimal allocation of labour, capital and goods in the organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century... Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that Empire enhanced global welfare.’ As Tharoor shows, this ‘optimal allocation’ of resources ‘meant, to its colonial victims, landlessness, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, disease, transportation and servitude’ (p215).

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India: The struggle for independence – part 2: 1931-1947



15 August 1997 marked the 50th anniversary of the formal independence of the Indian sub-continent. In the last issue ROBERT CLOUGH outlined the course of the struggle to end British colonial rule up to 1931. In this issue he explains how British imperialism was able to ensure that the struggle ended with a neo-colonial solution, where political independence masked a continuing domination by imperialist rule, and how the conduct of the Labour Party was critical to the outcome.

The Indian sub-continent today is racked by poverty, malnutrition and disease. Its one billion inhabitants are amongst the poorest in the world, with the lowest life expectancy. Literacy in India is 36 per cent; in Bangla Desh 29 per cent, in Pakistan a mere 26 per cent. India’s gross domestic product, with its 850 million population, is no more than that for the Netherlands with its 15 million inhabitants; that for the whole sub-continent is about the same as Canada (26 million inhabitants). In Bangla Desh, millions are constantly at the prey of floods which have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In all three countries, political structures are riddled with corruption. Fascists recently formed a short-lived coalition government in India. In Pakistan, heroin dominates the economy. Inter-communal violence provoked by fundamentalist, neo-fascist organisations is a feature of political life in both countries — between Sunni and Shia Moslems in Pakistan, and between Hindus and Moslems and Sikhs and Hindus in India. Today, the economy of the sub-continent is at the mercy of neo-liberalism. Multinationals are plundering its natural resources, aided and abetted by the local ruling classes. Under imperialism’s regime, the future for the mass of the rural poor and the working class is even greater poverty and oppression. All this is a far cry from the optimism expressed by Pandit Nehru during his speech at India’s independence ceremony on 14 August 1947 when he declared: ‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge... At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India ‘will awake to life and freedom... We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.’ Yet these words were spoken in the midst of an appalling communal slaughter, as rival ruling class interests imposed a settlement to protect their interests, one which involved the partitioning of the sub-continent. This involved collaborating with British imperialism to destroy any revolutionary movement of the working class and oppressed.

India: from 1931 to the 1935 Constitution

That such a movement was possible was shown in Part One. Although relatively small in relation to the mass of the population, the urban working class could mobilise the support of a peasantry which lived in destitution, bankrupted by an alliance of wealthy landlords and money-lenders. At key points in the earlier period, especially between 1919 and 1922, and then 1928 and 1931, the oppressed had given the national freedom struggle an anti-capitalist content. When Gandhi called off the struggle in 1922, his declaration at Bardoli was as much about the property rights of the zemindars or landlords as it was about non-violent struggle, and it came as the industrial working class and rural poor were not only making India ungovernable for the British, but through rent strikes and land occupations demonstrating their own concept of a free India. In 1931, his agreement with the Viceroy Lord Irwin ensured that key representatives of the new movement — the Meerut detainees and members of the Garwhali Rifles — remained under lock and key, and he specifically declared that ‘strikes do not fall within the plan of non-violent co-operation’.

Following the failure of the London Round Table Conference, the Raj unleashed a tidal wave of repressive laws and ordinances under the direction of a former leader of the Black and Tans, Sir John Anderson. In January 1932, The Indian National Congress and all associated organisations were banned, and by the end of the year, 90,000 were in gaol for political offences. Despite the severe economic crisis, it took a further two years before the movement was finally crushed. The strength and durability of the revolutionary trend amongst the working class and peasantry terrified the Indian bourgeoisie as much as it did British imperialism. Both now moved to ensure that such a movement would never challenge them again.

The 1935 Constitution

The first step was taken by British imperialism. It realised it would have to make some concessions on Indian self-government to give political space to the Indian ruling class. The outcome of its deliberations was the 1935 Constitution, an elaborate scheme whose purpose was to play off the 565 Princely States and the various communal movements against Congress. The Constitution proposed the establishment of 11 Provincial Assemblies, and a two-tiered central parliament consisting of an upper house — the Council of State and a lower house — a Federal Assembly.

The electorate was organised along communal lines, and deliberately excluded the poor. Out of a total of 1,585 seats in the provincial assemblies, only a minority (657) were designated ‘open’ seats for general contest. Others were reserved for particular sections of the electorate: 482 for Moslems, 151 for scheduled castes (the so-called untouchables). There were 56 for commerce and industry, 37 for landlords, 34 for Sikhs, even 26 for Europeans. Educational and property qualifications limited the electorate to the wealthiest 11 per cent of the total adult population. The assemblies themselves would have limited powers, all of which would be subject to veto by their respective Provincial Governors.

Centrally, the Council of State was to have 260 seats, of which 104 were allocated to the Princes, whilst a further 81 were allocated to minorities such as Moslems, Sikhs, Europeans and so on. The Federal Assembly would have a mere 86 out of 375 seats open to general election. Of the remainder, 125 were reserved for Princes’ nominees, the rest for specific minorities, including, once again, Moslems (82 seats).

Elections to the provincial assemblies would be the first step in enacting the Constitution. The issue for Congress, unbanned the previous year, was whether to accept the proposals, and participate in the elections, or to boycott them. Gandhi, representing the Indian ruling class, was for immediate acceptance. The Congress left, led by Nehru and supported by Subhas Chandra Bose, was for a boycott. At the Lucknow Congress in April 1936, Nehru moved two resolutions: the first for the complete rejection of the Constitution, the second demanding collective affiliation of workers’ and peasants’ organisations to Congress. Both were decisively defeated by a movement now firmly in the hands of the money-lending and landlord interests. From now on, Congress was clearly set against the oppressed; there was no way the Indian ruling class would tolerate the views of the dispossessed being expressed within the ranks of its own organisation.

The left from 1931

Excluded from Congress, the working class and rural poor had no serious organisation to turn to. The Communist Party of India (CPI), which had been established in the early 1920s, was almost irrelevant. Although its substantial base in Bombay had given it significant influence over the most organised section of the Indian working class by 1928, within a year it had all but collapsed. Two factors had decided this: first the arrest and detention of most of its leadership in April 1929, and second, the standpoint it had adopted under the direction of the Communist International, which argued that the immediate struggle was one for socialism rather than national independence. Isolated from the mass movement, its membership plummeted from 5,000 in 1928 to no more than 150 at the height of the movement in 1931. In 1934, it was banned.

The only other option was a brand of social democracy represented within Congress by the Congress Socialist Party (CSP). This was not however a socialism for the oppressed, but for the petit bourgeoisie, who needed a vehicle to represent their interests given the bourgeois domination of Congress as a whole. Its purpose was to prevent any new movement from going beyond the bounds of what was acceptable to Congress as a whole. Hence its role was one of a loyal opposition, unwilling and unable to organise within the working class or amongst the rural poor, and equally unwilling and unable to stop the bourgeoisie from retaining its control of Congress.

The 1937 elections

Elections to the Provincial Assemblies under the 1935 Constitution took place in 1937 and resulted in a victory for Congress, as it confirmed its dominant position within the Indian ruling class. Despite all the communal gerrymandering, it won a total of 715 seats, taking an overall majority in six provinces. Yet, in a significant concession to communalism, it contested only 58 of the Moslem seats, winning a mere 26. Although the Moslem League won far more — 104 seats — it got only 4.8 per cent of the total Moslem vote in a striking demonstration of its eclipse.

In a replay of the 1936 Lucknow Congress, the CSP and Nehru now argued against taking office given the absolute powers of the Provincial Governors. Once again, Gandhi and the right wing prevailed, this time by a two-thirds majority, and after extracting a meaningless verbal concession from the Viceroy on the powers of provincial governors, Congress accepted office in the seven provinces, and formed coalitions in two more (Assam and Sind). Only in the Punjab and Bengal was it forced into opposition.

The results proved a great stimulus to the growth of Congress: following a campaign led by Nehru during his presidency of the organisation, membership rose from just over 600,000 in 1936 to six million in 1939. But Gandhi and the right wing moved to ensure that this was not translated into any greater influence for the left. In 1938, Gandhi urged the expulsion of those who did not believe in ‘observing truth and non-violence as conditions of attainment of Swaraj [self-government)’. Next, he put forward a resolution which observed that ‘in the name of civil liberties’ some Congressmen were advocating ‘class war by violent means’ (in particular by supporting strikes) and warned that ‘civil liberty does not cover acts of incitement to violence or promulgation of palpable falsehood’. The resolution re-affirmed support of all measures taken by Congress governments in ‘the defence of life and property’ — a powerful reassertion of the class interests Congress represented.

The provincial governments and the rise of communalism

Yet whilst the Indian ruling class was consolidating its grip on Congress, it was also sowing the seed of its own division. In accepting office in the provincial governments, it started to foment the communal interests that were eventually to lead to partition.

Nowhere was this more true than in Bengal, where although Moslems were in an overall majority, land ownership and money-lending was concentrated in the hands of Hindus. Suspicion of Congress intentions amongst the Moslem peasantry had already been aroused when Congress opposed a Tenancy Act passed by the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in 1928, which offered minor improvements in the rights of tenant farmers. Later, Congress politicians opposed further reforms passed by the Bengal coalition government such as a second Tenancy Act, and a Moneylenders Act in 1940 which fixed rates of interests and abolished compound interest. For the Bengal peasantry, Congress appeared to be a party of the landlord and money-lender, and Hindu to boot. Meanwhile, fundamentalists of the Hindu Maha Sabha started to increase their influence on Congress as a whole when the ruling coalition rigidly enforced communal ratios in public employment, so that unemployment amongst educated Hindus started to rise.

If Congress more openly expressed the interests of a predominantly Hindu ruling class, so the Moslem League started to gain in political influence in provinces such as United Province where Congress land reforms threatened Moslem landlord interests. Although Congress was avowedly a secular organisation, the fact was that where Hindus were the predominant landlord interest Congress was seen to act in a communal way. Although there had been communal riots in the 1920s and early 1930s, these had been in periods of defeat and of a very limited scale. Thus at Chaura Chaura in 1922, where two peasants were hanged for their part in burning down the police station, one had been a Moslem and one a Hindu. Communalism as a political trend was able to predominate only once the revolutionary nationalist position had been isolated and destroyed.

1939 and the outbreak of war

1939 saw the complete eclipse of any opposition within Congress as Gandhi continued his drive to purge the organisation. Subhas Chandra Bose had been elected Congress President unopposed in 1938; he decided to stand again in 1939 alleging that members of the Congress Working Committee, its de-facto leadership, were preparing to compromise over the federal component of the 1935 Constitution.

Behind this lay a refusal of Congress to organise against the feudal Princes. Indeed, Congress policy had been to seek an alliance with the Princes to ensure a safe transition to bourgeois rule following national independence. Gandhi had told the Round Table Conference in 1931 that ‘up to now the Congress has endeavoured to serve the Princes by refraining from any interference in their domestic and internal affairs’, continuing: ‘I feel and I know that they have the interests of their subjects at heart... I wish them well; I wish them all prosperity.’ Whether or not Congress should organise in the Princely States, where one in five Indians lived, had been debated in 1937 and 1938 and rejected. With the federal component of the Constitution giving great weight to Prince’s nominees, Congress strategy was to appease them in the hope that they would support self-government.

Unexpectedly, Bose won the presidency against Gandhi’s nominee in January 1939. 12 out of 15 Working Committee members resigned immediately. At its March Congress in Tripuri, the old guard moved a resolution defending the Working Committee, and demanding that Bose as President appoint one which reflected Gandhi's wishes. The resolution was passed, with Nehru and the CSP abstaining, but CPI delegates voting in favour. Gandhi refused then to co-operate with Bose in selecting the Working Committee, and thereby forced his resignation. Gandhi’s dictatorship over Congress was now total.

In autumn 1939, Congress provincial governments resigned in protest at the Viceroy’s unilateral declaration of war on Germany. This created an opportunity for British imperialism to develop its alliance with the Moslem League and force through the division within the Indian ruling class. Under Mohammed Jinnah’s leadership, the Moslem League had transformed itself from a moribund organisation dominated by the Moslem landlords and titled gentry in the mid-1930s to an organisation that claimed over 100,000 members, and which was now supported by virtually all the Moslem bourgeoisie and upper middle class. The League celebrated the Congress governmental resignations as Deliverance Day, and offered its support to the British war effort, receiving British funds for its paper Dawn as a reward.

Yet until this point the League had not adopted any position distinct from Congress on the nature of an independent India. A combination of British pressure and the fears of the Moslem section of the ruling class made the acceptance of partition inevitable. At the end of 1940, the League formally adopted the demand for a separate state – Pakistan, to include the Punjab, Kashmir and Baluchistan. Only later was Bengal thrown in for good measure: although it had a Moslem majority, it did not include the sort of landlord interest amongst whom the League could organise.

The Cripps Mission and the Quit India movement

Although its war effort was supported by both the Moslem League and the Princely States, British imperialism still needed to reach an accommodation with Congress if it were to use India’s resources in the fight to defend its empire. Negotiations proved fruitless, particularly after Churchill’s coup in May 1940. By the end of the year, most of the Congress leadership was back in gaol as a result of a very limited non-co-operation campaign. In August 1941, Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter with US President Roosevelt guaranteeing the right of nations to self-determination, whilst declaring that this provision did not apply to the British Empire in general, and to India in particular.

However, the situation was transformed by Japan’s declaration of war and invasion of Malaya in December 1941. On 7 March 1942, the Burmese capital of Rangoon fell as British power collapsed like a pack of cards. An invasion of Bengal was now a very real threat. In these circumstances, Congress support for the war effort had now become vital, and its leaders were released from gaol. On 11 March the Cabinet sent out Sir Stafford Cripps, a prominent left-wing member of the Labour Party to negotiate a solution with Congress.

Cripps’ proposals however offered no significant advance. Self-government as a British Dominion would be possible – after the war. But there was a significant exception: any part or province of India which did not want to enter a future Indian union could form a Dominion on its own account. This was a let-out clause both for the larger Princely States and for the League's proposed Pakistan, and would lead to the Balkanisation of India. Any new Indian constitution would be framed by an electoral college, one part drawn from representatives of the Provincial Assemblies and elected on the restricted 1935 franchise, the other from delegates appointed by the Princes in proportion to the population of the Princely States. Hence the Moslem League and the Princely States could not only decide on the constitution, they could then decide whether they wanted to abide by it. Yet Congress was prepared to concede on all these points – what finally led it to reject the Cripps plan was the British refusal to allow an Indian War Minister into the Viceroy's Executive Council with anything beyond responsibility for supplies. Cripps flew back to London at the end of March with nothing.

However, Congress itself was now in a weak position. Its whole strategy had been based on destroying mass movements rather than creating them. But it had to do something since it was in danger of being outflanked by Subhas Bose, who had left India and was now raising an army of volunteers from regulars captured by the Japanese in Burma and Malaya – the Indian National Army (INA). For many, it seemed that here was the force which would at last drive the British out of India. In desperation, Congress launched the Quit India movement in August 1941, with Gandhi exhorting its supporters to ‘do or die’. Within three months it had been defeated by a combination of savage repression and communal and other political divisions. Tens of thousands were arrested; official claims of 900 deaths at the hands of the police and troops were countered by Congress claims that up to 10,000 were killed. Later, a famine in Bengal in 1943 caused in part by a scorched earth policy operated by the British Army was to cost at least a million lives: starvation, cholera, malaria and small pox were rampant in Calcutta even in 1945.

The Quit India movement itself was opposed, not just by the Moslem League, but also by the Hindu Maha Sabha. However, they were not alone: crucially, the campaign was opposed by the CPI, which had recovered much of its earlier strength, and others on the left and in the trade union movement. Together, they were able to prevent the working class from playing any significant role in the campaign, and contributed to its early defeat. Never again did Congress attempt to organise a mass civil disobedience campaign: it no longer had the troops to do it.

Towards partition

With the Congress leadership once more in gaol, the Moslem League was free to consolidate its position in the provincial legislatures which still functioned. Bose's popularity was never seriously tested, since the INA only fought in a very limited number of engagements. Meanwhile the Indian working class was kept in check by the CPI’s and the trade unions’ opposition to any industrial action. The Indian Army itself grew from 175,000 to over two million. Indian troops were used in the Middle East, in Greece in 1944/45 to suppress the ELAS freedom movement, and later in Viet Nam against the Viet Minh and in Indonesia in an attempt to restore Dutch colonial rule.

At the end of the war, the Congress leaders were released as the newly-elected Labour government sought to re-open negotiations on self-government. Elections took place in March 1946 to a constituent assembly and the provincial legislatures, still on the privileged bourgeois franchise of 1935. In the Central Assembly, Congress won 57 general seats, and although the Moslem League won all 30 Moslem seats, it was still unable to form a majority government in any province, not even in those it had designated to be part of a future Pakistan.

Yet time was not on the side of either British imperialism or the Indian ruling class, for, despite their careful efforts to prevent it, a movement of the working class and oppressed suddenly exploded into life. The spark was the British attempt to put former members of the INA on trial. Huge demonstrations in protest at the end of 1945 found Congress leaders alongside leaders of the Moslem League in Calcutta; subsequent rioting was put down with the loss of 33 lives. A further general strike on 11 February 1946 followed the sentencing of a former INA officer: this time 84 were killed. Suddenly it appeared that the entire communal edifice the British had prepared was in danger of collapsing.

Ten days after the second general strike in Calcutta, the Indian Navy mutinied on the other side of the country in Bombay. The following day there was a general strike throughout the city as it fell into the people’s hands. The British called on both Congress and the Moslem League for support in ending the insurrection. Jinnah urged Moslem sailors to end their participation, but his communal appeal went unheard. It required the Congress leadership and Gandhi to urge surrender before the strike committee called a halt; Gandhi himself directly attacked the strikers saying that ‘a combination between Hindus and Moslems and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy’. 228 people died at the hands of British troops.

By early summer 1946, India was becoming ungovernable. Viceroy Wavell urged the Labour government to form a central government with Congress support so that Congress ‘would put down the communists and try to curb their own left wing’. But the division within the Indian ruling class was preventing any progress towards a negotiated solution, with Congress holding out against Moslem League demands for partition. In an effort to bolster their position vis-a-vis Congress, the League called for a Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946. With the British turning a blind eye to the inevitable consequences, communal riots broke out in Calcutta which turned into a mass blood-letting: 5,000 were killed in the space of three days. The Calcutta killings were to prove a turning point. Communal riots started to spread throughout the country, and by early 1947 they had become endemic. This brief flowering of the revolutionary movement was destroyed, as the key political issue became how the rival ruling class interests would carve up the sub-continent between them. Partition had become inevitable, and the arrival of Lord Mountbatten as Viceroy in March 1947 with a brief to negotiate independence for August 1948 showed a complete under-estimation of the depth of antagonism that now existed.

In an effort to contain the situation, the Labour Government agreed to bring forward independence to 15 August 1947. The Princes were forced to make a choice between Pakistan and India. Two of the largest states held out: Kashmir and Hyderabad. A boundary commission was set up to decide the borders both to the east, in the Punjab in particular, and to the west in Bengal. It reported in six weeks: its ruling in relation to the Punjab resulted in the bloodiest massacres – perhaps half a million people died in the ensuing conflict. Both Kashmir and Hyderabad were swiftly incorporated into India. The sub-continent had been saved for imperialism, but at an appalling human cost both then and now. As we wrote at the end of our previous article, ‘there is no more savage indictment of Labour than in its crushing of the Indian struggle of 1928-31... it destroyed any chance of the Indian working class playing a significant role in the Indian liberation movement.’ Its legacy lives with the people of the Indian sub-continent today.

India: The struggle for independence – part 1: to 1931



15 August 1997 marks the 50th anniversary of the formal independence of the Indian sub-continent. ROBERT CLOUGH outlines the course of the struggle to end British colonial rule, how British imperialism was able to ensure that it ended with a neo-colonial solution, where political independence masked a continuing domination by imperialist rule, and how the Labour Party would be critical in achieving this aim.

India was truly 'the jewel in the crown' of British imperialism. From 1757, when Clive’s victory over the Mogul of India started the plunder of Bengal, India was a source of untold wealth, exceeding even that generated by the slave trade. The results were no less destructive: the imposition of capitalist relations on the Indian rural economy led to regular famines during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whilst Bengal itself was reduced from conditions of development equivalent to those in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century to the abject poverty that characterises the Bangla Desh of today. If the slave trade had created a mercantile power out of British capitalism, it was the plunder of Bengal that provided the money capital to advance the Industrial Revolution.


The British conquest of India was possible because of its ability to exploit divisions between local feudal interests and then maintain its rule by extending and deepening them. Although there were progressive aspects to British rule — the introduction of modern forms of communication such as the railways and telegraph system, the destruction of feudal modes of existence, the establishment of modern technical education for a small section of the indigenous population — these were accompanied by the creation of a massive surplus population living on the edge of starvation through the destruction of the local textile industry (to allow India to serve as a mass market for the one being established in Britain), and by the introduction of private ownership of the land. The resulting ferment coalesced in the Mutiny of 1857, suppressed with savage brutality. This was to mark a turning point. Until that time, the policy of British imperialism had been to create a unified colony out of thousands of feudal statelets. It had encouraged substantial Indian representation in the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service and the medical, legal and teaching professions were almost completely Indian. The Mutiny changed all this: the involvement of the dispossessed had terrified the British ruling class. From then on British imperialism allied itself with the princely states against the masses, so that the political map of India would remain a mosaic of divided fiefdoms — 565 of them, with a fifth of India's total population of some 300 to 400 million.


Significant opposition to British rule did not emerge again until the early 1900s. In the meantime, a retired official of the Indian Civil Service, Allan Hume, had set up the Indian National Congress, and served as general secretary from its foundation in 1885 until 1908. Hume regarded Congress as ‘a safety valve for the escape of growing forces generated by our (ie British) own action ... and no more efficacious safety valve than our own Congress movement could possibly be devised’, and in its early years, it acted as a debating society for the English-educated bourgeoisie. Yet it could not remain like this. Within its ranks, divisions between the wealthy landlord interests and the petty bourgeoisie — teachers, lawyers and students — began to appear, with the latter starting to agitate for independence. The first test came in 1905, with the proposal by the Viceroy of India to partition Bengal and so drive a wedge between the Hindu and Moslem populations. A mass boycott movement developed, led by the petty bourgeois wing of Congress. The colonial administration attacked it ruthlessly, jailing hundreds, breaking up meetings, and passing new repressive legislation. When one of the leaders, Tilak, was jailed for six years in 1908, textile workers in Bombay went on strike, an event hailed by Lenin. Armed organisation emerged in the struggle, adding to the threat posed to British rule, which responded by encouraging inter-communal strife. In 1911, after some minor political concessions, the proposal was quietly withdrawn. Yet the seeds of future division had been sown. Inter-communal strife had a material basis in Bengal: a section of the Moslem bourgeoisie had stood to gain from the partition of Bengal, and had opposed the boycott campaign. The result was the formation of the Moslem League, with a membership restricted to ‘400 men of property and influence’ — a sound indication as to its class nature.


The next major challenge to Congress was the outbreak of the First Imperialist War in 1914, which India also entered by virtue of a declaration of the Viceroy. At each of its four annual sessions during the War, Congress proclaimed its support for British imperialism. Gandhi, newly arrived from South Africa, urged his colleagues to ‘think imperially’, but when he offered to raise a corps of stretcher-bearers for the campaign in the Middle East, the Viceroy excused him on the grounds of his ill-health, adding that ‘his presence in India itself at that critical time would be of more service than any that he might be able to render abroad’ — prophetic words indeed. By the end of the war, India was in turmoil. Britain had plundered it of manpower, finance and food resources. The first three years of the war had cost India £270 million: part of this was used to fund the one million strong army it provided to British imperialism, and which was crucial in preventing the German Army from occupying the Channel ports in its 1914-15 campaign. But it also included a forced loan of £100 million, a sum equivalent to at least £5 billion in today’s terms. And, at a time when two-thirds of the population was starving, Indian exports of wheat and cereals amounted to 2.5 million tons in 1917, and even more in 1918. The mutinous state of the Indian Army, and the impact of the Russian revolution, meant that some political concessions to the nascent Indian bourgeoisie were needed to stabilise imperialist rule. The Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, touring India in 1918, described the ‘seething, boiling, political flood raging across the country’. He proclaimed the Government’s aim as ‘the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of Responsible Government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.’ Together with the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, he prepared a report on the necessary constitutional changes to buy off at least one section of the Indian bourgeoisie.


The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were based on a plan devised by one Lionel Curtis. Responsibility for three departments, education, health and local government, would be transferred to elected ministers, but only at a provincial level: national structures would remain unchanged. Even then, the vital department of finance would remain under the control of the Indian Civil Service. There would be a franchise: 3 million out of 350 million people would be allowed the vote. The progress of these reforms would then be reviewed after a period of ten years. At the request of the Labour Party, Curtis produced a pamphlet explaining his proposals for use by Labour candidates in the 1918 General Election. ‘At present’, he wrote, ‘the number of people who could understand the vote is small. To grant full responsible government outright ... would place government in the hands of a very few’ — an ironic statement given how few ruled it through the Indian Civil Service at the time. However, such ‘reforms’ were irrelevant to the mass of the Indian people. Famine stalked the land: estimates as to the number who died from a combination of flu and starvation in 1918-19 range from 12 to 30 million. The countryside was a tinder-box: and starting in the heartland of the cotton industry, Bombay, a massive strike wave spread throughout the major industrial centres. The only response was repression: a Bill enacting new measures to combat ‘sedition’ and ‘terrorism’ proposed by the Rowlatt Committee took effect in March 1919. On 13 April, a meeting against the Rowlatt Act took place in Amritsar in the Punjab. Under the command of General Dwyer, a column of troops opened fire on the peaceful crowd. 379 people were murdered, 1,200 injured.


The result was an explosion. The first six months of 1920 saw 200 strikes involving 1.5 million workers. In September 1920, Congress authorised a progressively extending boycott movement. Under Gandhi's reluctant leadership, the campaign spread throughout early 1921: spontaneous non-payment of taxes started in some areas; more ominously for the Indian landlord class, peasants started to go on rent strike. A huge general strike greeted the arrival of the Prince of Wales in November of that year. But Gandhi, now in control of Congress, ruled out an amendment to the aims of Congress to call for complete independence, and then refused to sanction a call for the non-payment of taxes. For three months, he remained silent, and then, on 1 February 1922, he sent a letter to the Viceroy, stating that unless all prisoners were released, and the Rowlatt Act repealed, he would authorise a campaign of mass civil disobedience but one confined to the tiny District of Bardoli, home to a mere 87,000 people. Hardly had the letter been sent when news came that peasants had stormed the police station in the village of Chauri Chaura and burned 22 policemen to death. Immediately, he called off the campaign complaining in the so-called Bardoli declaration that ‘the country is not non-violent enough’, advising ‘the cultivators to pay land revenue and other taxes due to the government, and to suspend every other activity of an offensive nature’, and ordering the peasants that withholding of rent payment to the landlords was ‘injurious to the best interests of the country’. For the impoverished peasants, there was little difference between paying taxes to the British authorities and rents to the native landlords. Both were part of a system that kept them in bondage. The passage from opposition to the British to opposition to the landlords was but a small step. And that is what Gandhi and Congress feared. The Bardoli Declaration was far more about the rights of property than about Gandhi's supposed hatred of violence. The results were immediate. Gandhi was arrested, and was retired for six years to the palatial accommodation that was reserved for him whenever he went to gaol. The Moslem League split from Congress for what it regarded as its extremism, whilst another section formed the Swaraj League to contest elections to the local assemblies. Four communists were arrested for conspiracy, tried, and sentenced to several years’ imprisonment in the so-called Cawn-pore conspiracy trial. The movement all but collapsed.


Political conditions did not change with the advent of the first Labour Government in 1924. Ramsay MacDonald as both Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary stated in case there was any doubt that ‘I can see no hope in India if it becomes the arena of a struggle between constitutionalism and revolution. No party in Great Britain will be cowed by threats of force or by policies designed to bring Government to a standstill; and if any section in India are under the delusion that is not so, events will sadly disappoint them.’ And as if to underline its position, the government sanctioned the passage of yet more repressive legislation, the Bengal Ordinance, which allowed for detention without charge let alone trial.

In late 1927, the Tory Secretary of State for India, Lord Birkenhead, decided to bring forward the statutory review of the progress of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in order to guarantee Tory control of the Commission that would carry it out. With the complete eclipse of the Liberals at the 1924 election, Labour had become the Loyal Opposition; this meant they would be entitled to seats on the Commission. In negotiations with MacDonald on its composition, Birkenhead’s aim was to exclude any Indian representation, whilst MacDonald's was to ensure the presence of at least two Labour members. Both achieved what they wanted, and MacDonald overruled Labour Party executive objections to the absence of any Indians. The two Labour nominees were Clement Attlee and Steven Walsh, the latter a notorious imperialist.

The enabling act setting up the Commission under the Chairmanship of Sir John Simon was rushed through Parliament by Christmas 1927. All sections of the Indian nationalist movement were outraged. The Indian TUC passed a motion demanding that Labour ‘withdraw its members from the Simon Commission’, and resolved that it itself would boycott it. Its President, Chaman Lal, protesting what he described as MacDonald’s ‘imperialist proclivities’ went on to say: ‘All classes are aghast at the betrayal by the Labour Party. The Simon Commission will register the middle class imperialist verdict.’ Pandhit Nehru, on behalf of Congress told the Labour NEC: ‘I am authorised to state that the action of the Labour Party, in not withdrawing its members from the Commission, and trying to effect some kind of compromise, is not supported by any responsible party in India.’

The Simon Commission together with Attlee arrived in India in February 1928, to be greeted by a general strike; three demonstrators were killed in a demonstration in Madras. As it proceeded round the country, it was greeted with mass demonstrations, strikes and riots. The Indian working class played a leading role: a colossal strike movement in 1928, with over 30 million days lost, was accompanied by a 70 per cent growth in union membership, with a massive growth of the revolutionary Bombay Girni Kardar or Red Flag Union. Meanwhile the 1928 Labour Conference debated a motion opposing the Commission. Fortified by a TUC report attacking the middle class leadership of the Indian trade union movement, the conference trounced opposition by 3 million votes to 150,000. No wonder Shapurji Saklatvala, the British Communist MP, reported for the Daily Worker: ‘It has been well-known for some time that the Commission would have a hostile reception from the Indian workers, who view it as the latest weapon of British imperialism... When the Bombay workers burned the effigy of MacDonald in the streets along with that of Lord Birkenhead and others, they showed that they viewed the Labour Party as nothing more or less than the willing hirelings of British imperialism.’


British imperialism was given breathing space by a split in the Indian National Congress at the end of 1928: whilst the left wanted an immediate campaign for independence, Gandhi and the bourgeois wing made any campaign conditional on a British refusal to accept self-government by 31 December 1929. Imperialism had a year in which to prepare. In March 1929, all the most prominent leaders of the Indian working class, including the entire leadership of the Red Flag Union, were arrested and taken to Meerut, detained on a charge of ‘attempting to deprive the King-Emperor of the sovereignty of India’. At a crucial stage in the liberation struggle, the working class movement had been decapitated.

The election of the Labour government in May 1929 brought no change to British policy. Gandhi made no response when his deadline was passed, although there were vast demonstrations on Independence Day, 30 January 1930. In the meantime, the government took the precaution of detaining the leading left-wing nationalist Subhas Bose. Finally, Gandhi announced a march on Dandi by a select band of followers to make salt in defiance of the government monopoly, to be followed by a campaign of non-co-operation. On 6 April, Gandhi made his salt and the movement exploded once more, as peasants interpreted non-co-operation to mean non-payment of rent as well as taxes. The town of Peshawar fell into the hands of the people following hundreds of deaths and casualties at the hands of loyal troops. But one incident stood out: ‘Two platoons of the Second Battalion of the 18th Royal Garwhali Rifles, Hindu troops in the midst of a Moslem crowd, refused the order to fire, broke ranks, fraternised with the crowd, and a number handed over their arms. Immediately after this, the military and police were withdrawn from Peshawar; from 25 April to 4 May the city was in the hands of the people.’ (Palme Dutt: India Today, 1940)

At Sholapur in Bombay, the workers took over the administration for a week. Under Labour’s direction, the response of the government was brutal, creating a condition akin to martial law. Congress was banned in June, and Gandhi arrested. In the 10 months up to April 1931, between 60,000 and 90,000 people were arrested. Physical terror was the norm: between 1 April and 14 July alone, 24 incidents of firing had left 103 dead and 420 wounded; by the end of June, the RAF had dropped over 500 tons of bombs in quelling the disturbances.


The Simon Commission reported in June 1930, offering no significant concession, merely fuelling the anger. In an effort to break the impasse, Labour convened a ‘Round Table Conference’, inviting representatives from the three British parliamentary parties, some Indian merchants, industrialists and landowners and various feudal puppets from the Indian princely states. Opening it in January 1931, MacDonald declared that ‘I pray that by our labours, India will possess... the pride and the honour of Responsible Self-Government’, an offer which committed the government to nothing. It was however enough for Gandhi; in March he persuaded Congress first to call off the mass campaign for a few petty concessions, and then to participate in the Conference it had sworn to boycott. He demanded no preconditions about self-government or home rule, only that the oppressive ordinances were to be withdrawn, and prisoners released — except those guilty of ‘violence’ or ‘incitement to violence’, or soldiers guilty of disobeying orders. This formula allowed Labour and Gandhi to exclude the Meerut detainees, a group of Sikh revolutionaries who were forthwith hanged, and 17 soldiers from the Garwhali Rifles, who were given severe sentences. With that, Gandhi was released to attend the Round Table Conference, a charade that continued for a year without resolution. As a contemporary Communist wrote: ‘Hanging, flogging, slaying, shooting and bombing attest the efforts of parasitic imperialism to cling to the body of its victim. The Round Table Conference beside these efforts is like the ceremonial mumblings of the priest that walks behind the hang-man.’

There were sound reasons for Labour’s intransigence: the tribute from India ran at £120 million to £150 million per annum. As the Manchester Guardian pointed out in 1930: ‘There are two chief reasons why a self-regarding England may hesitate to relax her control over India. The first is that her influence in the past depends partly upon her power to summon troops and to draw resources from India in time of need [such as £180 million in gold the British government unilaterally removed from India to bolster sterling between October 1931 and March 1932] ... The second is that Great Britain finds in India her best market, and she has £1,000 million of capital invested there.’

A Naesmith, Secretary of the Weaver’s Amalgamation, the largest textile union in Britain, echoed this view from the standpoint of the interests of the labour aristocracy when he told a mass meeting ‘they desired to see India and her people take their rightful place in the community of nations, but not at the expense of the industrial and economic life of Lancashire and those dependent on it.’

It had needed a Labour Government to re-establish British control over India. There is no more savage indictment of Labour than in its crushing of the Indian struggle of 1928-31. Under a fog of democratic phrases, it acted savagely. It destroyed any chance of the Indian working class playing a significant role in the Indian liberation movement, which from then on became the play-thing of different bourgeois interests. In a debate in 1930, an Independent Labour Party MP, WJ Brown, made a prophetic point when he told parliament: ‘I venture to suggest that we should regard it as a cardinal feature of British policy to carry Gandhi with us, for if we do not, we have to face the alternative to Gandhi, and that is organised violence and revolutionary effort.’

Those wishing to learn more about British rule in India can do no better than read India Today by R Palme Dutt, Left Book Club, 1940. This is still widely available in second hand bookshops and public libraries.

In the second part of this article, Robert Clough traces the course of the struggle from 1931 to 1947.



Cotton exports destroyed

Between 1815 and 1832, the value of Indian cotton exports fell from £1.3 million to £100,000. In the same period, the value of English cotton imports into India rose from £26,000 to £400,000. By 1850, India, which had for centuries exported cotton to the world, accounted for one quarter of all British cotton exports. The population of Dacca, centre of the cotton industry, fell from 150,000 to 30-40,000. In 1797 exports of Dacca muslin amounted to 3 million rupees; by 1817 they had ceased altogether. Such was the impact of the tariffs imposed on Indian cotton imports. Without them there would have been no English cotton industry.


Deaths through famine in India:

1800-25 1 million 1

1825-50 0.4 million

1850-75 5 million

1875-1900 15 million

The 1931 census revealed the true nature of private ownership of the land. 4 million landlords owned 75 per cent of the land; one third of them owned 70 per cent of all arable land. 66 million tenant-cultivators owned the remainder, whilst 33 million were landless labourers. In the Punjab, a survey of 27 farms showed that the landlord took 82 per cent of the produce. In Bengal, at a time when the tax revenues were £3 million, the zemindars or landlords collected £13 million. Between 1911 and 1940, total peasant indebtedness rose from £225 million to £1.2 billions so that ’indebtedness often amounting to insolvency, is the normal condition of Indian farmers’ (The Problem of India, p41, Shelvankar, Penguin, 1940).


Annual tribute

Palme Dutt calculates the annual tribute from India to Britain in the twenty years to 1940 as averaging £135 million to £150 million – over £5 billion in today's money. In 1933, British investment totalled some £1,000 million, about one quarter of all British foreign investment. The highest wages at this time were some 6 to 7 shillings a week; for women they could be below two shillings. This compared with an unskilled wage in Britain of 30 shillings, and a skilled wage of £4.


Princely states

LF Rushbrook-Williams in the Evening Standard 28 May 1930 on the princely states: ‘The situations of these feudatory States, checkerboarding all India as they do, are a great safeguard. It is like establishing a vast network of friendly fortresses in debatable territory. It would be difficult for a general rebellion against the British to sweep India because of this network of powerful loyal Native States.’


Gandhi: anti-working class

Gandhi's thought, expressed to delegation of landlords in 1934:

‘I shall be no party to dispossessing the propertied classes of their private property without just cause... You may be sure that I shall throw the whole weight of my influence in preventing a class war... Supposing there is an attempt unjustly to deprive you of your property you will find me fighting on your side.’

India: Modi visits Britain

In mid-November Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a three-day visit to the UK, meeting heads of UK corporations to urge them to invest more in India, holding talks with David Cameron and making a speech to 60,000 supporters in Wembley stadium. This was the 29th country Modi had visited in the eighteen months since he was elected prime minister following a landslide victory for his party BJP, thanks to an astute and well-funded media campaign and disillusionment over rising inflation and slow growth under the previous Congress government. Modi had been banned from visiting the UK and US and other countries in the wake of his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat state, where he had been chief minister when over 1,200 Muslims were killed. Thousands of Indian demonstrators protested against the visit outside Downing Street and other venues, and the slogan ‘Modi not welcome’ was projected on the Houses of Parliament.

The recent UK visit comes in the midst of increased communal polarisation and attacks against mainly Muslims and Dalits (the lowest and poorest stratum in Hindu society) in India. A number of secular intellectuals and freethinkers such as MM Kalburgi have been murdered and others have received death threats from fundamentalist Hindutva gangs, emboldened by the right-wing BJP government’s Hindu nationalist policies and Modi’s studied silence in the face of these events. A number of writers, film directors and other intellectuals have returned their awards to the government in protest against the rising intolerance. In BJP-ruled Haryana, attacks on Dalits have increased seven-fold. In October, two Dalit children were burnt alive in Faridabad by upper-caste Hindus. Mob attacks on Muslim men seen in the company of Hindu women under the false accusation of love jihad are now common in Mangalore and other coastal cities of Karnataka state where Hindutva forces dominate.

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India: Stocks rise as Modi-led BJP wins Indian national elections /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

On 17 May, results of the Indian national elections gave the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies an absolute majority, sending shares in the Indian stock market surging to an all-time high. The humiliation of the Congress Party at not even being able to win the minimum 10% of seats in parliament needed to secure the title of leader of the Opposition is total. The election result is testament to the complete failure of the Congress Party and the reformist communist parties – Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) – through years of attacks on workers’ rights and pro-imperialist deals. India faces greater inequality, corporate rule and communal violence.

The BJP secured a majority of nearly 340 seats in the lower house with a 31% vote share, beyond even the wildest expectations of their own supporters and unprecedented for a non-Congress party. Hit by corruption-related scandals, a slowdown of economic growth and its continual betrayals of the working class and poor, the secular Congress Party and its allies suffered a historic defeat, winning just 44 seats – the lowest since India’s independence from Britain in 1947. The BJP won parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir which it has not won before, but did not poll as well in West Bengal, Telengana, Tamil Nadu, Odish and Kerala. In the Rajya Sabha, (upper house) the BJP and allies control only 63 of 250 seats, fewer than the Congress Party. Many major structural changes require a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the BJP will need more allies. Jayalalithaa, populist leader of the AIADMK, won 37 out of 39 constituencies in Tamil Nadu, and has already indicated her interest in co-operating with the BJP.

BJP leader Narendra Modi is now Prime Minister of what is known as the ‘world’s largest democracy’. He has been accused of presiding over and condoning a pogrom of Muslims in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, encouraging police killings of Muslim youth, and misusing state machinery apparatus to target his political rivals within and outside his party. A number of Western countries including the US and Britain imposed visa bans on Modi less than 10 years ago but they have been quick to mend their bridges, with Cameron, Obama, and others quickly inviting him to visit their countries. Israel has long-standing ties to the BJP and has announced new investments in India.

The ideological parent of the BJP is a fascist organisation called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which Modi is a member. Its founders openly admired Adolf Hitler and supported the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. One of its members was responsible for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 in protest against his perceived softness towards Muslims. RSS worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure increased polarisation in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and other states politically important for the BJP to win. The BJP has been transformed into a party dominated by one man and his cronies. Senior leaders of the BJP have been largely sidelined. Amit Shah, a man accused of being behind killings of Muslim youth, has become the second most powerful person in the party thanks largely to his loyalty to Modi.

The Modi election campaign saw unprecedented spending levels, with reports of over 5,000 crores of rupees spent (around £500m) financed by big business houses including Tata, Ambani and Birla. Adverts in all the national newspapers and on major TV and radio channels and billboards in prime locations in the cities, have contributed to the manufacturing of the so-called Modi ‘wave’. He travelled all over India giving rousing election speeches, in jets donated by the private company Adani. This spending by big Indian capitalists owes much to the widespread perception of Modi as a crony capitalist who will implement the economic and labour ‘reforms’ long demanded by the Indian capitalist class. Modi has in the past given land away at throwaway prices to big businesses such as Tata, Reliance and Adani to enable them to set up plants in Gujarat, where Modi has been chief minister for the last three terms, and highlighted the lack of labour struggles there in contrast with other states like Orissa and West Bengal where strikes have forced big businesses to rethink the feasibility of their industrial plants.

The Modi campaign mainly steered away from its roots of Hindutva fundamentalism and focused on claims of development, citing Gujarat as an example. This is despite the fact that it lags behind other states on human development indices such as education and health care. Modi’s statements reflecting on India’s past glory and getting back India’s rightful place in the world have stirred up nationalist feelings among much of the middle class and educated workers. Underneath the claims and hopes of a strong India and economic growth which helped to sway the middle class and educated elites, lay a campaign of intimidation of political opponents and even institutions like the election commission. In communally sensitive places such as the state of UP and Assam where recent Hindu/Muslim riots have taken place, the polarisation of Hindus and Muslims benefited the BJP electorally and was exploited to the fullest, with BJP leaders making statements such as ‘vote for BJP to take revenge against those who killed Jats in the communal riots’ (Amit Shah in UP) and ‘those who oppose Modi will have to go to Pakistan’ (Giriraj Singh in Bihar).

The BJP campaign hired a US firm called APCO to ‘cleanse’ Modi’s public image. The campaign kept the focus on development and recent scandals in the Congress-led government. The fact that some BJP allies, like Yeddyurappa, are themselves accused of corruption and that Modi has not allowed the creation of an independent anti-corruption ombudsman body or Lokayukta in Gujarat, was successfully sidelined. Modi managed to strike a chord with voters tired of rising prices and low employment, as well as tune into widespread anger at the incumbent Congress Party. Modi contrasted the ineptitude of Rahul Gandhi, the Cambridge-educated scion of the Congress Party, with his own humble origins and track record of development as Chief Minister. Focusing on the Congress Party’s dynastic politics and nepotism – which has been led by a member of the Gandhi family for most of its existence in independent India – Modi was able to turn the focus away from the BJP’s deplorable past record of communal politics.

Only militant and organised resistance, demanding a new social system, can offer a way forward for the poor and oppressed in India. On 1 May, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has long waged an armed struggle against the Indian state, announced a merger with the Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist (Naxalbari), which is active in Kerala. This is likely to strengthen resistance in the southern state, extending the established ‘red corridor’ of the Maoist insurgency from north-eastern and central India. Despite harsh state repression, guerrilla activity is rising. The CPI (Maoist) called for a boycott of the recent elections. Strikes have also been held throughout India. Workers producing cars for Toyota in Karnataka held a protracted strike in April 2014. They faced violent attacks by the police in which 150 were injured, and a betrayal by their union leadership which forced them back to work. Struggles against imperialist corporations are arising throughout India and will no doubt intensify. Communal clashes have flared up in Hyderabad, Meerut, Assam and other parts of the country in recent weeks. The new government has already given signals that it will encourage foreign direct investment in non-retail areas and remove subsidies on gas, certain to hit the poor hardest. The need of the hour is for workers to get together and prepare to fight against the new government’s reactionary and anti-labour measures.

Joy Bose