Issue 211 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article:Indepence Day

Unjum Mirza

India was the 'brightest jewel in the imperial crown' of the British Empire. Anything up to 60 percent of British cotton exports went to India and the far east, of which 40 to 45 percent went to India alone. 'The home of cotton was inundated with cotton', said Karl Marx. India's balance of payments surplus with every industrial country except Britain saw the transfer of foreign currency earnings supporting British finance capital. It was not just trade that made India a second pole of the British Empire but also the provision of men. Indian troops were used to fight all over the world. In the First World War India sent and paid for a million men to fight for Britain and a further 2 million men were sent to fight in the Second World War. India provided the British with the muscle to sustain and extend the empire. The decisions to colonise Singapore (fiercely opposed by London) and Aden, to establish hegemony over the Persian gulf, to conquer Burma and the attempt to conquer Afghanistan were all taken in India.

Imperial rule in India was by no means monolithic. India was governed ultimately by London, yet there was a British government of India, in Calcutta until 1911 when it shifted to Delhi. Headed by a titled British politician, the viceroy and governor general, who was in theory the secretary of state's man in India. In practice, relationships between the two men and their governments were negotiated. Its purpose was to serve British economic and political interests.

The political decision making and administration at higher levels were entirely the privilege of the Europeans who in the early 1880s manned all but 16 of the 900 odd posts in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). It was explained, 'We shall not subvert the British Empire by allowing the Bengali Baboo to discuss his own schools and drains.' The ICS was staffed by those recruited in England by open competitive examination with the curriculum arranged so as to place a premium on candidates from Oxford and Cambridge. The ICS administered the country, collected revenues, maintained law and order and formed the magistracy over the entire country.

Below the ICS was a large Indian bureaucracy recruited on a provincial basis and strictly controlled and supervised in its functions. It was through this subordinate service that the authority of government penetrated to the masses. The defence of India was under a commander-in-chief appointed directly from England. Commissioned ranks were open only to Europeans and the force was stiffened by contingents of British troops posted in India. Of course Indian collaborators were indispensable in the day to day running of such a huge country. The years after 1857 saw the renewal and consolidation of links with princes, zamindars (landlords), a variety of urban and rural notables and the Indian native rulers (maharajas) who were to remain the most loyal supporters of British rule till the very end.

An often underplayed aspect of British rule in India was the use of racism before and after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Writing in 1857 Karl Marx quoted from an Englishman's letter in a newspaper, 'Every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.' Divide and rule was another increasingly important aspect of British rule.

After the Indian Mutiny of 1857 the British deliberately promoted communalism through separate electorates and job and educational reservations for Muslims from the late 19th century. Through the preservation of the zamindari system they placed Hindu lords to rule over Muslim peasants and vice versa.

Indian nationalism was really a product of the 20th century. Though the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885, it did not go far beyond its original elite intellectual confines and was still little more than an irritant. The international rupture caused by the First World War, the massive jolt the Depression caused the international economy, and the Second World War saw Indian capitalism grow and expand. The grip the British held over the Indian economy loosened and Indian concerns sprang up in engineering and other trades supplying the army and navy including iron and steel, paper and cement.

The British reinforced their stranglehold over the Indian economy to slow down the pace of industrialisation giving the struggle for independence a somewhat protracted character. Yet the economic base of the Indian industrial bourgeoisie had strengthened enormously proving to be decisive and irreversible. Industrial expansion was accompanied by the growth in size and organisation of the working class. In 1920 and 1921 tens of thousands of jute workers, railway workers, steel workers, textile workers and tea plantation workers struck in all major cities. In 1921 there were 396 recorded strikes involving some 600,000 strikers and 7 million strike days lost.

A memorandum of the Royal Commission on Labour noted, 'The industrial worker has become more class conscious as a result of the economic and political influences which have come into play since the war.' In 1928-29 the strike wave involved more workers than in 1921. Bombay was paralysed by a wave of major strikes in the textile industry. Workers were involved in political protests too. During the mass protests against the Rowlatt Bills, an attempt by the British to extend draconian wartime regulations after the First World War, textile workers in Ahmedabad burnt down 51 government buildings. In Lahore the British were driven out of the city temporarily and a people's committee took control. There were even Muslim calls to end cow slaughter for Bakr-Id (an Islamic festival) in the interest of Hindu-Muslim unity.

The Indian capitalists wanted an independent state. This the British had conceded but for sometime in the distant future. The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Gandhi provided a means of achieving just that without serious threat to India's capitalists. Gandhi was a western educated lawyer who was supported and financed by some of the leading Indian industrialists including Birla. His dress in a loincloth was to identify with poor peasants and workers but in fact he was financed by the owners of mechanised cotton factories in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi's politics of satyagraha­non-violent civil disobedience­was crucial because it was the means by which the Indian capitalist class could gain a mass base for their campaign for independence without the risk of the masses trying to take over the whole operation. Whenever the masses threatened to escape the grip of Congress, a sudden and abrupt halt would be called to campaigns in the name of non-violence. At the Ahmedabad Congress in 1931, Gandhi explained that 'civil disobedience is the only civilised and effective substitute for an armed rebellion.' He further explained, 'Strikes do not fall within the plan of non-violent non-cooperation.'

The coalition of forces which formed the Indian National Congress often took a religious, communitarian view of Indian society. This was particularly true of Gandhi. Gandhi himself was anti-communalist, yet his religious approach only helped reinforce the Hindu communalists organising under the umbrella of Congress and did little to appeal to the Muslims and undercut the communalist Muslim League.

The Muslim League, an elitist organistion made up of wealthy landlords and conservative Muslim intellectuals, only gained a following in the decade between 1937 and 1947. Its leader, Jinnah, was a member of Congress. In the 1937 elections, the League captured a mere 4.8 percent of the Muslim vote. By 1945-46, and only as late as that, it secured 76 percent of the total Muslim vote in India. This transformation has to be explained against the background of the Second World War.

The viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, declared India at war with the Axis powers without even consulting the Indians. Congress declared its opposition to the war, its eight provincial ministries resigned, and its leadership launched the Quit India movement in 1942. The British responded with repression, with nearly 1,000 people killed, 3,000 injured and­by late 1943­92,000 in prison. Congress was banned.

Jinnah's Muslim League supported the war and sought, with the encouragement of the British, to replace Congress among sections of the Muslim middle class. Jinnah insisted that the Muslim League was to be the sole voice of India's Muslims. Yet Congress had more Muslim members than the Muslim League. The Communists played a role in helping the Muslim League. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was formed in the mid-1930s and was at birth a Stalinist organisation. In the early 1940s decided to extend its tacit support to the demand for a separate homeland for Muslims.

The war had brought other changes too. Britain was no longer the imperial power it once used to be. The United States put pressure on the British to reach accommodation with the nationalist forces. A spate of spectacular victories brought the Japanese to the borders of India. As the British withdrew they embarked upon a scorched earth policy resulting in the loss of millions of lives through famine. They also abandoned many of their Indian troops who went on to form the Indian National Army (INA) that agreed to fight for the Japanese.

After the war the British tried to put on trial for treason a number of the former soldiers of the INA. The first trial was held in Delhi, in November 1945 with a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh in the dock together. On 18 February 1946 all ratings of HMIS Talwar, the Signal Training Establishment of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) at Bombay, walked out of the mess in protest against bad food and racist insults. There were some 60 RIN ships in Bombay harbour at that time. As the ratings went back from shore leave that evening, they took back with them the news of the strike in Talwar. By the next morning every ship and shore establishment was on strike. The tricolor, crescent and hammer and sickle flags were intertwined and raised jointly on the mastheads of the rebel fleet. The CPI called for a general strike and got an enormous response, with 300,000 downing tools in Bombay despite opposition of both the Congress and Muslim League.

Both the Muslim League and Congress spoke out openly against the rebellion. According to Gandhi the ratings were 'setting a bad and unbecoming example for India' and he went on to explain that 'a combination between Hindus and Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy.'

The League continued to campaign solely on the issue of 'Pakistan' and called a 'day of action' that was to be the prelude to the partition of India. Clashes between Hindus and Muslims saw 4,000 dead and 15,000 injured in three days of what became known as the 'Great Calcutta killing'. Eighteen months on, India was partitioned. A carnival of reaction swept the states of Bengal and the Punjab. A survivor recalls Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who had been living together peacefully for many years 'suddenly found they couldn't trust their neighbours any more.'

The boundaries between the two new states were not declared until after independence, only then to reveal their complete absurdity. Pakistan­supposedly a 'homeland' for India's Muslims­was composed of two wings over 1,000 miles apart.

Aruna Asaf Ali, the Congress Socialist leader, explained that it would have been far easier 'to unite the Hindus and Muslims at the barricade than on the constitutional front'. And yet this is precisely what Congress feared. Communalism to them was a lesser evil than the possibility of social revolution.

The partition of India was not inevitable. The class struggle forced the British to withdraw, boosting independence struggles across the world. It also dealt massive body blows to the communalists. However, Congress­afraid of workers' struggle­opted for partition. A crisis of leadership meant there was no revolutionary organisation able to harness the growing level of class struggle and consciousness and thus avert the tragedy of partition. The partition of India did not end communalism­it only reinforced it.


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