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 part one 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 Bangladesh 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 Bangladesh, 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.


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