I was in Chungking when the war began in Europe. The Congress President cabled me to return immediately, and I hurried back. A meeting of the Congress Executive was being held when I arrived, and to this meeting Mr. M. A. Jinnah was also invited, but he expressed his inability to come. The Viceroy had not only committed India formally to the war but had issued a number of ordinances; the British Parliament had also passed the Government of India Amending Act. All these enactments circumscribed and limited the powers and activities of the provincial governments and were resented, especially as no effort had been made to consult the people’s representatives. Indeed, their oft-repeated wishes and declarations had been completely ignored.
On September 14th, 1939, after long deliberation, the Congress Working Committee issued a lengthy statement on the war crisis. The steps the Victory had taken and the new enactments and decrees were referred to and it was stated that ‘the Working Committee must take the gravest view of these developments.’ Fascism and Nazism were condemned, and particularly ‘the latest aggression of the Nazi government in Germany against Poland,’ and sympathy was expressed for those who resisted it.
While co-operation was offered it was added that
any imposed decision … will necessarily have to be opposed by them. If co-operation is desired in a worthy cause, this cannot be obtained by compulsion and imposition, and the Committee cannot agree to the carrying out by the Indian people of orders issued by external authority. Co-operation must be between equals by mutual consent for a cause which both consider to be worthy. The people of India have, in the recent past, faced grave risks and willingly made great sacrifices to secure their own freedom and establish a free democratic state in India, and their sympathy is entirely on the side of democracy and freedom. But India cannot associate herself in a war said to be for democratic freedom when that very freedom is denied to her, and such limited freedom as she possesses taken away from her.
The Committee are aware that the Governments of Great Britain and France have declared that they are fighting for democracy and freedom and to put an end to aggression. But the history of the recent past is full of examples showing the constant divergence between the spoken word, the ideals proclaimed, and the real motives and objectives.
Certain past events, during and after World War I, were referred to and then:
Subsequent history has demonstrated afresh how even a seemingly fervent declaration of faith may be followed by an ignoble desertion … Again it is asserted that democracy is in danger and must be defended, and with this statement the Committee are in entire agreement. The Committee believe that the peoples of the west are moved by this ideal and objective, and for these they are prepared to make sacrifices; but again and again the ideals and sentiments of the people and of those who have sacrificed them-selves in the struggle have been ignored and faith has not been kept with them.
If the war is to defend the status quo, imperialist possessions, colonies, vested interests, and privilege, then India can have nothing to do with it. If, however, the issue is democracy and a world order based on democracy, then India is intensely interested in it. The Committee are convinced that the interests of Indian democracy do not conflict with the interests of British democracy or of world democracy; but there is an inherent and ineradicable conflict between democracy for India and elsewhere and imperialism and fascism. If Great Britain fights for the maintenance and extension of democracy, then she must necessarily end imperialism in her own possessions … A free democratic India will gladly associate herself with other free nations for mutual defence against aggression and for economic co-operation. She will work for the establishment of a real world order based on freedom and democracy, utilising the world’s knowledge and resources for the progress and advancement of humanity.
The Congress Executive, nationalist as it was, took an inter-national view and considered the war as something much more than a conflict of armed forces.
The crisis that has overtaken Europe is not of Europe only but of humanity, and will not pass like other crises or wars, leaving the essential structure of the present-day world intact. It is likely to re-fashion the world for good or ill, politically, socially, and economically. This crisis is the inevitable consequence of the social and political conflicts and contradictions which have grown alarmingly since the last Great War, and it will not be finally resolved till these conflicts and contradictions are removed and a new equilibrium established. That equilibrium can only be based on the ending of the domination and exploitation of one country by another, and on a reorganization of economic relations on a more just basis for the common good of all. India is the crux of the problem, for India has been the outstanding example of modern imperialism, and no re-fashioning of the world can succeed which ignores this vital problem. With her vast resources she must play an important part in any scheme of world reorganization; but she can only do so as a free nation whose energies have been released to work for this great end. Freedom to-day is indivisible, and every attempt to retain imperialist domination in any part of the world will lead inevitably to fresh disaster.
The Committee proceeded to refer to the offers of Rulers of Indian states to support the cause of democracy in Europe, and suggested that it would be fitting if they introduced democracy within their own states, where undiluted autocracy prevailed.
The Committee again stated their eagerness to help in every way but expressed their apprehension at the trend of British policy both in the past and present in which they failed
to find any attempt to advance the cause of democracy or self-determination or any evidence that the present war declarations of the British Government are being, or are going to be, acted upon.’ They added, however, that in view ‘of the gravity of the occasion and the fact that the pace of events during the last few days has often been swifter than the working of men’s minds, the Committee desire to take no final decision at this stage, so as to allow for full elucidation of the issues at stake, the real objectives aimed at, and the position of India in the present and in the future.
They invited therefore ‘the British Government to declare in unequivocal terms what their war aims are in regard to democracy and imperialism and the new order that is envisaged, in particular, how these aims are going to apply to India and to be given effect to in the present. Do they include elimination of imperialism and the treatment of India as a free nation whose policy will be guided in accordance with the wishes of her people? … The real test of any declaration is its application in the present, for it is the present that will govern action to-day and give shape to the future … It will be infinite tragedy if even this terrible war is carried on in the spirit of imperialism and for the purpose of retaining this structure which is itself the cause of war and human degradation.
This statement, issued after anxious deliberation, was an attempt to overcome the barriers that had arisen between India and England and poisoned their relations for a century and a half, to find some way to reconcile our eagerness to join in this world struggle with popular enthusiasm behind us, and our passionate desire for freedom. The assertion of India’s right to freedom was no new thing; it was not the result of the war or the international crisis. It had long been the very basis for all our thoughts and activities, round which we had revolved for many generations. There was no difficulty whatever in making a clear declaration of India’s freedom and then adapting this to existing circumstances, keeping the needs of the war in view. Indeed the very necessities of the war demanded it. If England had the desire and the will to acknowledge India’s freedom, every major difficulty vanished and what remained was capable of adjustment with the consent of the parties concerned. In every province provincial governments were functioning. It was easy to evolve a popular central apparatus of government for the war period, which would organize the war effort on an efficient and popular basis, co-operate fully with the armed forces, and be a link between the people and the provincial governments on the one hand, and the British Government on the other. Other constitutional problems could be postponed till after the war, though of course it was desirable to attempt to solve them even earlier. After the war the elected representatives of the people would draw up the permanent constitution and enter into a treaty with England in regard to our mutual interests.
It was no easy matter for the Congress Executive to make this offer to England when most of our people had little appreciation of the international issues involved and were expressing their resentment at recent British policy. We knew that long-standing distrust and suspicion on both sides could not vanish away by some magic word. Yet we hoped that the very stress of events would induce England’s leaders to come out of their imperialist grooves, take a long view and accept our offer, thus ending the long feud between England and India, and releasing India’s enthusiasm and resources for the war.
But that was not to be, and their answer was a refusal of all we had asked for. It became clear to us that they did not want us as friends and colleagues but as a slave people to do their bidding. We used the same word ‘co-operation,’ but a different meaning was attached to it by either party. For us co-operation was to be between comrades and equals; for them it meant their commanding and our obeying without demur. It was impossible for us to accept this position without abandoning and betraying everything we had stood for and that had given some meaning to our lives. And even if some of us had been willing to do so we could not have carried our people with us; we would have been stranded, isolated, and cut off from the living currents of nationalism, as well as from the internationalism that we envisaged.
The position of our provincial governments became difficult and the choice for them was submission to continuous interference by the Governor and the Viceroy or conflict with them. The superior services were wholly on the Governor’s side and looked upon the ministers and the legislature, even more than before, as intruders. Again there was the old constitutional conflict between an autocratic king or his representatives and a parliament, with this addition, that the former were foreigners basing their rule on armed force. It was decided that the Congress governments in the eight provinces out of eleven (all except Bengal, Punjab, and Sind) should resign in protest. Some were of opinion that instead of resigning they should carry on and thus invite dismissal by the Governor. It was clear that in view of the inherent conflict, which was daily becoming more obvious, clashes between them and the governors were inevitable and if they did not resign, they would be dismissed from office. They took the strictly constitutional course of resigning and thus inviting a dissolution of the legislature and fresh elections. As big majorities were behind them in the legislatures no other ministries could be formed. The governors, however, were anxious to avoid new elections as they knew well enough that these would result in the overwhelming triumph of the Congress. They did not dissolve the legislatures but merely suspended them, and assumed all the powers of the provincial governments and legislatures. They became completely autocratic heads of provinces, making laws, issuing decrees, and doing everything else they wanted to without the slightest reference to any elected body or to public opinion.
British spokesmen have often asserted that the Congress Executive acted in an authoritarian manner in calling upon the provincial governments to resign. This is an odd charge, coming from those who have been functioning in a more autocratic and authoritarian manner than anyone outside the fascist and Nazi countries. As a matter of fact the very foundation of Congress policy, on which members of the legislatures had been elected and provincial governments had been formed after assurances from the Viceroy, was freedom of action in the provincial sphere and no interference by Governor or Viceroy. This interference was now a frequent occurrence and even the statutory powers of the provincial governments, given under the Government of India Act of 1935, had been further limited. These statutory powers of the provinces were now overridden for war purposes by an amendment of the Act by the British Parliament. The discretion when and where to interfere in the provinces was left entirely to the Government of India, which meant the Viceroy, and no statutory safeguards were left to protect the powers of the provincial governments, which could carry on only on sufferance. The Viceroy and Governor-General, with the assured co-operation of his nominated executive council, could override, under cloak of war necessity, every decision of the provincial governments and legislatures. No responsible ministry could function in these circumstances; it would either come into conflict with the Governor and the services or with the legislature and its constituents. Each legislature, where there was a Congress majority, formally adopted the demand of the Congress after the war began, and the rejection of this demand by the Viceroy, inevitably meant conflict or resignation. The general feeling among the rank and file was for launching a struggle with the British power. The Congress Executive was, however, anxious to avoid this as far as possible and took the milder course. It was easy for the British Government to test the feeling of the people generally or of the voters by having general elections. They avoided this because they had no doubt that elections would result in overwhelming Congress victories.
In the major provinces of Bengal and the Punjab and in the small province of Sind, there were no resignations. In both Bengal and Punjab the Governors and the superior services had all along played a dominant role and hence no conflict could arise. Even so, in Bengal on a later occasion the Governor did not like the Prime Minister and forced him and his ministry to resign. In Sind also, at a later stage, the Prime Minister addressed a letter to the Viceroy criticizing the British Government’s policy and, as a protest, gave up an honour conferred on him by that Government. He did not resign. The Viceroy, however, made the Governor dismiss him from the premiership because of this letter, which was not considered in keeping with the viceregal dignity.
It is nearly five years since the Congress provincial governments resigned. During this entire period there has been one-man rule, the Governor’s in each of the provinces and we have gone back, under the pretext and in the fog of war, to the full-blooded autocracy of the middle-nineteenth century. The civil service and the police are supreme and if any of their number, English or Indian, shows the slightest disinclination to carry out the ruthless policy of the British Government, the gravest displeasure is visited on him. Much of the work done by the Congress governments has been undone and their schemes have been liquidated. Fortunately, some of the tenancy legislation has remained, but even this is often interpreted against the interests of the tenants.
During the last two years, in the three minor provinces of Assam, Orissa, and the North-West Frontier, provincial governments have been reconstituted by the very simple device of imprisoning a number of members of the legislatures, and thus converting a minority into a majority. In Bengal the existing ministry depends entirely on the support of the large European bloc. The Orissa ministry did not survive for long and that province reverted to the Governor’s one-man rule. In the Frontier Province a ministry continued to function, though it had no majority to back it, and hence a meeting of the Legislature was avoided. In the Punjab and Sind special executive orders were passed on Congress members of the legislatures (those out of prison) preventing them from attending the sessions of the legislative assemblies or participating in any public activities.*
* Early in 1945 the Frontier Legislative Assembly had at last to meet for the budget session. The Ministry was defeated on a vote of confidence and resigned. A Congress Ministry, with Dr. Khan Sahib as Premier, then took office.