Heavy Industry Begins. Tilak and Gokhale. Separate Electorates


In my desire to explore the background of the Hindu-Muslim problems and understand what lay behind the new demand for Pakistan and separation, I have jumped over half a century. During this period many changes came, not so much in the external apparatus of government as in the temper of the people. Some trivial constitutional developments took place and these are often paraded, but they made no difference whatsoever to the authoritarian and all-pervasive character of British rule; nor did they touch the problems of poverty and unemployment. In 1911 Jamshedji Tata laid the foundations of heavy industry in India by starting steel and iron works in what came to be known as Jamshedpur. Government looked with disfavour on this and other attempts to start industries and in no way encouraged them. It was chiefly with American expert help that the steel industry was started. It had a precarious childhood but the war of 1914-18 came to its help. Again it languished and was in danger of passing into the hands of British debenture holders, but nationalist pressure saved it.

An industrial proletariat was growing up in India; it was unorganized and helpless, and the terribly low standards of the peasantry, from which it came, prevented wage increases and improvement. So far as unskilled labour was concerned, there were millions of unemployed persons who could be drawn upon and no strike could succeed in these conditions. The first Trade Union Congress was organized round about 1920. The numbers of this new proletariat were not sufficient to make any difference to the Indian political scene; they were a bucketful in a sea of peasants and workers on the land. In the ‘twenties the voice of industrial labour began to be heard, but it was feeble. It might have been ignored but for the fact that the Russian Revolution had forced people to attach importance to the industrial proletariat. Some big and well-organized strikes also compelled attention.

The peasant, though he was everywhere and his problem was the supreme problem of India, was even more silent and forgotten by the political leaders and Government alike. The early stages of the political movement were dominated by the ideological urges of the upper middle classes, chiefly the professional classes and those looking forward to a place in the administrative machine. With the coming-of-age of the National Congress, which had been founded in 1885, a new type of leadership appeared, more aggressive and defiant and representing the much larger numbers of the lower middle classes as well as students and young men. The powerful agitation against the partition of Bengal had thrown up many able and aggressive leaders there of this type, but the real symbol of the new age was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, from Maharashtra. The old leadership was represented also by a Maratha, a very able and a younger man, Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Revolutionary slogans were in the air, tempers ran high and conflict was inevitable. To avoid this the old patriarch of the Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji, universally respected and regarded as the father of the country, was brought out of his retirement. The respite was brief and in 1907 the clash came, resulting apparently in a victory for the old moderate section. But this had been won because of organizational control and the then narrow franchise of the Congress. There was no doubt that the vast majority of politically minded people in India favoured Tilak and his group. The Congress lost much of its importance and interest shifted to other activities. Terroristic activity appeared in Bengal. The example set by Russian and Irish revolutionaries was being followed.

Muslim young men were also being affected by these revolutionary ideas. The Aligarh College had tried to check this tendency and now, under Government inspiration, the Aga Khan and others started the Muslim League to provide a political platform for Muslims and thus keep them away from the Congress. More important still, and of vital significance to India’s future development, it was decided to introduce separate electorates for Muslims. Henceforward Muslims could only stand for election and be elected by separate Muslim electorates. A political barrier was created round them isolating them from the rest of India and reversing the unifying and amalgamating process which had been going on for centuries, and which was inevitably being speeded up by technological developments. This barrier was a small one at first, for the electorates were very limited, but with every extension of the franchise it grew and affected the whole structure of public and social life, like some canker which corrupted the entire system. It poisoned municipal and local self-government and ultimately it led to fantastic divisions. There came into existence (much later) separate Muslim trade unions and students’ organizations and merchants’ chambers. Because the Muslims were backward in all these activities, these organizations were not real organic growths from below, but were artificially created from above, and their leadership was held by the old semi-feudal type of person. Thus, to some extent, the Muslim middle classes and even the masses were isolated from the currents of growth which were influencing the rest of India. There were vested interests enough in India created or preserved by the British Government. Now an additional and powerful vested interest was created by separate electorates.

It was not a temporary evil which tended to fade away with developing political consciousness. Nurtured by official policy, it grew and spread and obscured the real problems before the country, whether political, social, or economic. It created divisions and ill-feeling where there had been none previously, and it actually weakened the favoured group by increasing a tendency to depend on artificial props and not to think in terms of self-reliance.

The obvious policy in dealing with groups or minorities which were backward educationally and economically was to help them in every way to grow and make up these deficiencies, especially by a forward educational policy. Nothing of this kind was done either for the Muslims or for other backward minorities, or for the depressed classes who needed it most. The whole argument centred in petty appointments in the subordinate public services, and instead of raising standards all round, merit was often sacrificed.

Separate electorates thus weakened the groups that were already weak or backward, they encouraged separatist tendencies and prevented the growth of national unity, they were the negation of democracy, they created new vested interests of the most reactionary kind, they lowered standards, and they diverted attention from the real economic problems of the country which were common to all. These electorates, first introduced among the Muslims, spread to other minorities and groups till India became a mosaic of these separate compartments. Possibly they may have done some good for a little while, though I am unable to spot it, but undoubtedly the injury they have caused to every department of Indian life has been prodigious. Out of them have grown all manner of separatist tendencies and finally the demand for a splitting up of India.

Lord Morley was the Secretary of State for India when these separate electorates were introduced. He resisted them, but ultimately agreed under pressure from the Viceroy. He has pointed out in his diary the dangers inherent in such a method and how they would inevitably delay the development of representative institutions. Probably this was exactly what the Viceroy and his colleagues intended. In the Montague-Chelmsford Report on Indian Constitutional Reform (1918) the dangers of these communal electorates were again emphasized: ‘Division by creeds and classes means the creation of political camps organized against j each other, and teaches men to think as partisans and not as citizens… .We regard any system of communal electorates, therefore, as a very serious hindrance to the development of the self-governing principle.’

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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